World Bank recommends Global Phase-Out Of Leaded Gasoline

Eliminating Leaded Gas Reduces Health Risks

The World Bank is calling for a worldwide phase out of leaded gasoline to reduce health problems such as neurological damage, high blood pressure and heart disease linked to lead in the urban environment. Most of the 1.7 billion urban dwellers in developing countries are now at risk from lead poisoning.

“The benefits of doing away with leaded gasoline are immediate and measurable, and far outweigh the costs,” says Caio Koch-Weser, Managing Director of the World Bank. “The conversion to unleaded gasoline could be carried out within five years if countries commit themselves to a comprehensive phase-out program. The challenge is to change the incentives to petroleum refineries and gasoline users.”

Mr. Koch-Weser says the World Bank, which has spent $25 billion on urban projects since 1972, has taken an active role in public education and policy efforts to bring about the lead phase-out, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

The World Bank can help with the conversion by assisting governments in designing a feasible lead phase-out schedule and incentive policy framework; facilitating inter-governmental cooperation; and brokering financial packages through loans, guarantees, and attracting private investments. The World Bank’s views on urban problems will be presented at the second U.N. Conference on Human Settelements (Habitat II), “The City Summit”, scheduled for June 3-14, 1996, in Istanbul.

“Children will be the greatest beneficiaries of a global phase out of leaded gasoline,” explains Mr. Koch-Weser. “It is this age group who suffers lifetime disabilities caused by early exposure to lead, such as learning disabilities, hearing loss, reduced attention spans, behavioral abnormalities and a drop of several points in IQ.”

In developing countries, all urban children under 2 years of age and more than 80 percent of those between the age of 3 and 5 are suspected to have blood lead levels exceeding health standards set by the World Health Organization. About 15 to 18 million children in these countries may suffer permanent brain damage due to lead poisoning.

Leaded gasoline causes about 90 percent of airborne lead pollution in cities. The remaining 10 percent comes from factories and power plants. Other sources of lead exposure include lead pipes or lead-based solders in water supply systems, lead-based paint and ceramics.

Using unleaded gas makes sense. Countries can save five to ten times the cost of converting to unleaded gas in health and economic savings, the World Bank says. The United States saved more than $10 for every $1 it invested in the conversion due to reduced health costs, savings on engine maintenance and improved fuel efficiency.

Leaded gasoline, because it contains lead salts and halogen acids, causes greater corrosion of automobile exhaust systems and requires more frequent oil and spark plug changes. According to U.S. studies, switching from leaded to unleaded gasoline may increase engine life by as much as 150 percent.

Shifting from the production of leaded to unleaded gasoline is technically simple. Modern refineries do not need to make extensive investments. Old refineries, however, often have obsolete technology that cannot produce unleaded gasoline. Many of these refineries run at a loss and should be either modernized or closed down. A successful lead phase-out program depends on whether these difficult measures are taken.

Refinery modifications necessary to phase out lead typically pay for themselves in terms of improved productivity and profitability. If governments allow refineries to earn a reasonable return on their investment, financing is usually available for commercial sources. This requires appropriate price, tax and import policies. The cost of phasing out lead from gasoline is about $0.02 per liter, or some $0.07 per gallon, declining over time.

Government policies can smooth the conversion to unleaded fuels by pricing unleaded gasoline cheaper than leaded to encourage its wider use, and educating the public on the economic and health benefits of using unleaded gasoline.

“Much of the reason that unleaded gas is not used universally is the belief that you must have an expensive catalytic converter in each car in order to use this fuel,” explains Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank’s Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development. “That is simply wrong — cars can run on unleaded gas without the converter, and only some older models need lubricating additives.”

Contrary to some claims, unleaded gasoline need not contain higher amounts of benzene — a known carcinogen — than leaded gas, if fuel specifications are properly set. The exposure to benzene from gasoline mainly comes from evaporation of gasoline fumes, which occur with or without catalytic converters. The use of unleaded gasoline without catalytic converters therefore need not increase health risks. Benzene evaporation should be controlled in all cases.

Health Risks

Lead is a heavy metal that has long been known as a neurotoxin, a substance that adversely effects the nervous system even at low levels of exposure. Recent studies indicate that no safe level of lead exists.

Children are especially susceptible to lead because their digestive systems have fast absorption rates for heavy metals. Because lead particles settle on surfaces, children ingest contaminated dust and soil simply by putting their fingers in their mouths or by chewing on contaminated toys. Poor children are most at risk because malnourishment or physical stress intensifies disabilities caused by lead absorption. For adults, even low levels of lead absorption — occurring usually through inhalation– causes hypertension, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

In Bangkok, excessive exposure to lead causes 200,000 – 500,000 cases of hypertension, resulting in some 400 deaths per year in the late 1980s. Jakarta has 130,000 cases of hypertension each year due to lead. In Cairo, more than 800 infants die annually due to their mothers’ exposure to lead.

Lead contamination and exposure in cities is typically 3 to 4 times higher than in the suburbs and 10 times higher than in rural areas. For example, in the mid-1980’s, children living in the center of Budapest had blood lead levels of 24.8 ug/dl (microgram per deciliter) — three times higher than the 7.6 ug/dl average for suburban children. The result is that children living in the inner cities may suffer as much as a 4 point IQ loss compared to those in the suburbs.

When leaded gasoline was banned in the United States, lead exposure dissipated quickly. In 1976, when leaded gas was still used extensively, the average blood lead level for Americans was 16 ug/dl; in 1980, it dropped to around 10 ug/dl; today the level is less than 3 ug/dl.

Leaded Gas Use Increasing

Because of soaring increases in automobile use worldwide, the problems will only worsen if leaded gas continues to be used. In 1990, there were some 518 million cars and trucks worldwide. By 2010 that number will grow to 816 million, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries and Central and Eastern Europe.

Not only is automobile use increasing in developing world cities, but because urban populations typically have higher concentrations, larger numbers of people are being exposed to deadly lead pollution. Today, 1.7 billion people live in these cities — by 2025 the global urban population will double to 4 billion.

Several countries have banned all leaded gasoline, including Austria, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Sweden, Slovakia, and the United States. With World Bank support, Thailand banned leaded gasoline in 1995 after converting its petroleum production to unleaded fuel.

In many parts of the world, however, lead additives are still used in alarmingly large quantities in gasoline. In Africa, only high lead content gasoline is used — in some cases as high as 0.8 g/l (grams per liter) — more than twice the level that the United States allowed in the 1970s. In many parts of the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, high lead content gasoline is the standard, with only limited quantities of unleaded gasoline used.


The World Bank recommends the total phase-out of leaded gasoline. It is urging countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe that still use large amounts of lead in gasoline to take the first step by reducing the lead content of their gasoline to 0.15 grams per liter or less, followed by the introduction of incentives to encourage the use of unleaded fuel, and accelerated elimination of lead.

Bank studies in different parts of the world have shown that lead is one of the most serious environmental health hazards affecting growing urban populations. Lead impairs the mental development of young children, and increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and premature death for adults, even at levels of exposure previously considered safe.

Recognizing the damaging effects of lead on human health and its cost to societies, the Bank has been working with the governments of its client countries to tackle the main sources of lead exposure. As part of this effort, the Bank strongly supports the global phase-out of leaded gasoline, as a measure that reduces serious health risks at relatively low cost.

In many industrialized countries, improvements in car technology through the introduction of catalytic converters on new cars was the driving force for phasing out leaded gasoline. However, growing medical evidence of the dangers of lead should urge policy makers to phase-out lead from gasoline faster and sooner than replacing all cars with new ones. The Bank is urging countries, therefore, to pursue the total phase-out of leaded gasoline independently from the use of catalytic converters. Countries could get rid of leaded gasoline within five years if they committed themselves to pursue a comprehensive phase out program and set the right policies, such as fiscal incentives.

When political commitment exists and the right economic incentives are in place, leaded gasoline can be phased out easily and rapidly, as recent examples in Thailand and Slovakia have shown. The Bank has been assisting governments to increase public awareness of the problem, designing lead phase-out strategies, setting in place supporting fiscal policies, and mobilizing financing for refinery modifications.

Category: Press Release