Motor industry fiercely opposed lead-free petrol

Financial Times, 28 Sept 2015:

It is not the first time that car manufacturers have put profit ahead of public health, and it certainly won’t be the last (Winterkorn falls on his sword as emissions scandal engulfs VW Sept 24).

It needs to be remembered that the move to lead-free petrol was fiercely opposed by the motor industry who raised all sorts of technical issues which turned out to be Japan and the U.S. the main issue was photochemical smog so lead was removed from gasoline in the seventies in order to facilitate the use of catalytic converters.

In the UK however CLEAR, the Campaign for Lead- Free Air, focused on the health effects, but it still took three years to persuade the Thatcher government that contaminating the environment with a potent neurotoxin wasn’t helping the academic performance or behaviour of British children.  Lead was gradually phased out from 1985, and ten years later, blood lead levels in UK children had fallen by almost 80 per cent, mirroring the experience in the US between 1976-80.

The removal of lead was followed by initiatives to improve air quality, but the EU proposal to introduce catalytic converters was again resisted by the British car industry who argued that it would be disproportionately expensive for their smaller cars, and would compromise fuel efficiency.however Toyota was developing an oxidation catalyst that worked at a high air-fuel ratio (18:1) and I was able to submit confidential data to the Cabinet Office one hour before the issue was discussed in Downing Street. The EU proposal was approved and subsequently lead-free petrol and catalysts were introduced worldwide with enormous benefits to public health.

Of course in the eighties we had a Prime Minister with a science degree from Oxford I doubt any of the above would get past the current Cabinet.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath
Former Chair CLEAR
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire