Eliminating lead in petrol

Removing leaded fuels

Lead is toxic to humans. In children, continual exposure at low levels has been shown to cause mental retardation and behavioural problems. Owing to the use of lead in pipes for water distribution, paint, additives in gasoline and other industrial uses, lead has become a general environmental contaminant. There is no safe level of lead in the body.

The emissions of lead from the use of leaded petrol are causing severe damage to the environment and to human health. Techniques are available to reduce air pollution by almost eliminating lead emissions from on-road vehicles. Many countries have already phased out the use of added lead in petrol or are well underway in the process of doing so and have prepared plans for completely phasing out leaded petrol. More effective reductions of lead emissions from petrol are feasible.

Leaded petrol currently performs the important function of providing lubricant protection from wear for soft valve seats in the engine. It also provides a higher octane which many of these vehicles require. Both of these functions can be fulfilled by suitable alternatives which are now available.


The Pan-European strategy to phase out leaded petrol (endorsed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE) Fourth Ministerial Conference "Environment for Europe" in 1998) and the Declaration on the phase-out of added lead in petrol (signed by representatives of 32 Member States of UN/ECE at that conference) committed countries to phasing out the use of added lead in petrol for general use by road vehicles by 1 January 2005.

The general ban on sales of leaded petrol from 1 January 2000 is required under a European Directive 98/70/EC on fuel quality which was adopted by the European Parliament and Council on 13 October 1998. The directive also requires reductions in the permitted quantities of certain fuel components in unleaded petrol and diesel fuel, such as benzene and sulphur, which have an adverse environmental impact.

In 1998 unleaded petrol accounted for nearly 76% of total petrol sold. The petrol industry estimates that by 2000, 98% of petrol sold in the EU will be lead-free (only vintage car drivers will continue to use leaded petrol). Substitutes for leaded fuels will be Lead Replacement Petrol (LRP) and Anti-Wear Additives (AWAs). Engines put to hard use would require modification with hardened valve seats.

Many countries, including members of the European Union: Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Denmark and Sweden, also the United States, Canada, Norway and New Zealand amongst others, have already phased out leaded petrol. Provision of lead replacement petrol or separate anti-wear additives has enabled older vehicles in these countries to continue to run with little or no detrimental effects. In the UK, oil companies are preparing to market lead replacement petrol or anti-wear additives which are expected to be generally available by 1 January 2000.

UK emissions of lead from petrol-engined vehicles began to decline following the reduction of the lead content of petrol in 1986. This decline has continued as a result of the introduction of unleaded petrol in 1988. Emissions in 1997 were estimated at 800 tonnes, 75 per cent less than in 1988. Unleaded petrol accounted for 72 per cent of UK deliveries in 1997, almost 4 per cent higher than one year earlier.

Facilitated by:
Reducing fossil fuel use
Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production