Era of Leaded Gas Comes to an End In Most of Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 1, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 31 -- The import and refining of leaded gasoline ended throughout sub-Saharan Africa at the stroke of midnight Saturday as the region eliminated the biggest source of a toxic substance that has damaged brains, weakened nervous systems and fouled air and soil for 80 years.

It will take several months for the leaded gasoline in storage tanks to be consumed. But here in South Africa's largest city, tank trucks have already begun delivering a new grade of gasoline designed to protect older engines built for leaded gas.

"The old one, it will finish, maybe at 11," Thomas Mathabi, 21, a station attendant, said as he stood beside a pump containing some of the final reserves of leaded gasoline at a station in one of the city's plush northern suburbs. "It will be over."

As the last of the leaded fuel disappears, experts said, the air quality in Africa's increasingly dense cities should grow safer, especially for children.

The use of leaded fuel, which spews lead into the atmosphere and destroys emission control systems in vehicles, has caused Africa's relatively modest fleet of cars and trucks to create some of the world's worst urban air pollution. The lead in the air finds its way into children through contaminated soil and food.

"The moment you stop using leaded petrol, the lead levels in citizens start to drop," Rob de Jong, head of the U.N. clean-fuels program office in Nairobi, said in a telephone interview. "Six months from now, the blood lead levels in Africa should have dropped significantly."

Lead is among the most pervasive and damaging of environmental toxics, causing decreased intelligence in children even when exposure is at very low levels. First introduced as a fuel additive to curb engine-knocking in cars in the 1920s, it has been gradually eliminated from gasoline in much of the world in recent decades. Leaded gas was banned in the United States in 1996.

However, it is still found in 27 countries and on several Pacific islands, with the heaviest concentrations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pressure is growing on the remaining countries that produce leaded gasoline, and supplies of lead additives for fuel refineries are slowly dwindling, said Colin McClelland, director of the South African Petroleum Industry Association.

"This change has to be made," McClelland said from Cape Town, where the association is based. "It's a dying product. It's like saying, 'Do we still want to have ox wagons here?' It's necessary progress."

The change, heavily publicized on South African television and radio in recent weeks, has caused some uncertainty. At many gas stations, attendants wearing yellow T-shirts that said, "Ask me about the right fuel for you," handed out brochures explaining the new choices in gasoline.

But motorists remained puzzled, and some drivers asked whether it was the new or old fuel in the pump before buying.

"I'm not sure if my engine needs to be upgraded" for the new gasoline, said Eric Duma, 36, who pulled up in his baby-blue 1986 Toyota pickup to buy just enough leaded gasoline to make the 30-minute drive to his home in Soweto. He expected to buy his first tank of gas without lead on Sunday. "I am worried," he said.

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