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The History of the Elimination of Leaded Gasoline

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The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and other countries in East and Southeast Asia. Sayuri has previously authored numerous post for In Custodia Legis, including Tradition vs Efficiency: ‘Hanko’ Affects Workplace Efficiency and Telework in Japan; Food Delivery in Japan – History and Current Regulation; New Era, New Law Number; Holy Cow – Making Sense of Japanese Wagyu Cow Export Rules; Japanese Criminal Legal System as Seen Through the Carlos Ghosn Case; Disciplining Judges for “Bad Tweets.”

sign showing "contains lead" information
“Contains Lead” by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass (February 13, 2010). Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

When I saw news headlines online on March 7, 2022, saying that a study found Americans born before 1996 might have a lower IQ from exposure to leaded gasoline, I seriously thought that my own IQ could be lower for the same reason, having grown up in Japan.

I checked when Japan banned leaded gasoline and found that actually, I was safer in Japan. Japan was the first country to ban leaded gasoline.

In Japan in April 1970, the media reported that a local health association found lead levels in the blood of residents near 牛込柳町交差点 (Ushigome Yanagicho crossing) in Tokyo were unusually high, exceeding the safe level considerably. The crossing was very busy and located at the lowest altitude in the area, and had recorded the highest carbon monoxide (CO1) level in the air. Therefore, the area would be one of the hardest-hit areas by air pollution from automobiles. The media and public called for tetraethyl lead in gasoline to be banned. Though the result of the original blood tests were questioned by later tests, concerns about leaded gasoline did not go away. The then Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI, predecessor of Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) subsequently issued a notification to gradually reduce tetraethyl lead in gasoline in June 1970. In March 1971, the Cabinet amended (Order No. 30 of 1971) the Enforcement Order of Poisonous and Deleterious Substances Control Act (Order No. 261 of 1955) to reduce the maximum tetraethyl lead in gasoline from 1.3cc/liter (4.8cc/gal) to 0.3cc/liter (1.1cc/gal). (Art. 5.) Since February 1975, regular gasoline has not included lead. In 1986, gasoline for on-road vehicles became completely lead-free.

I felt that this was a great achievement, but was also a little suspicious. found the answer Through further research I found that, in fact, in order to clear the expected stricter exhaust emissions standards (not including lead) in the United States, Japanese automakers and MITI had moved in the direction of adopting new technology that required unleaded gasoline in February 1970, just before the Ushigome Yanagicho crossing case was published. Therefore, MITI and automakers already had a motive to eliminate lead from gasoline. However, it was true that the Ushigome Yanagicho crossing case was a strong force to eliminate lead from gasoline. According to an article, automaker engineers felt that the idea that “lead was bad for health, so industry eliminates lead from gasoline” was a new emotional approach, compared with their technical approach to improving cars.

Following Japan, Austria, Canada, Slovakia, Denmark, and Sweden were the next countries to ban leaded gasoline. In the United States and Germany, the final phase-out of leaded fuel came in 1996.

Actually, the Japanese government was not the first authority to ban leaded gasoline. Just after leaded gasoline was introduced to the market in 1923, New York City banned leaded gasoline for over three years, as did many U.S. states and municipalities for shorter periods in the mid-1920s. In 1925, the production of leaded gasoline was halted for over nine months. This was because of concerns raised after a horrible disaster that occurred in an oil company’s tetraethyl lead processing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in October 1924. Five workers died and 35 others showed serious neurological symptoms of organic lead poisoning, out of 49 workers. Ultimately, the tragic accident did not have strong enough force to motivate the government and the industry to change their attitude toward leaded gasoline immediately. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency began working to reduce lead emissions soon after its inception in 1970 and issued the first reduction standards in 1973, which called for a gradual phasedown of lead to one-tenth of a gram per gallon by 1986.

I also found that the last country to ban leaded gasoline was Algeria in 2021. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) began its campaign to eliminate lead in petrol in 2002 and helped to achieve the end of leaded petrol worldwide.

Now, we do not have to worry that our IQ will be lowered, at least not by lead from vehicles emissions, anymore.

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Comments (2)

  1. History of lead in the atmosphere especially in the US would benefit from mention of Clair Patterson
    Caltech researcher into lead-lead dating, he arrived at the currently accepted estimate of the age of the Earth. But he was plagued by lead contamination of samples, leading him to realize its pervasiveness and to petition the US government to ban the substance.

  2. I bought a 2 year old used car in 1972 and a year or so later it suffered a burnt exhaust valve. I pretty much determined that the cause of the burn valve was lead deposits that have built up on the valve sealing surfaces. Once part of the brittle deposits broke off the valve wouldn’t seal and thus was passing hot gases which caused it to burn. About a year later the same engine suffered another burn exhaust valve, which appeared to be caused by the same reason. At this point I switched over to running Gulftane low lead gasoline and never had another problem with the valves. I still own a similar model car today (just one year newer) and only had valve problems with it once and that was because several of the exhaust valves that had been replaced by a previous owner were low grade aftermarket valves which had stretched over time.

    About 20 years ago, I got the opportunity to work on a 1963 Sno-Go snowblower that had originally been owned by the Bureau of Land Management but was now in private hands. I was changing the oil and was concerned how little oil drained out of the engine, so I pulled the oil pan. The 8 gallon oil pan had about 6 gallons of lead sludge in it from the prolonged use of high octane leaded fuel. This actually used to be a common problem with engines through the early seventies, particularly high compression ones that required high octane fuels.

    My most recent encounter with lead was a 1974 VW Type 4 engine that had never been apart. It had been sitting for 10ish years at a minimum and I decided to throw it into a bus that needed an engine. The engine ran fine but vibrated like crazy so I just tooled around with it keeping the speed below 45 or so. One day I wanted to move the vehicle to our winter home and decided that I could get away with driving it because of the snow covered roads kept everyone driving slow. On reaching Northern Cal I was out of the snow so took some back roads to keep from holding up traffic. After pulling one long grade with the pedal dead to the floor I realized I could now let the speed creep up a bit more without before the vibrations got too bad and began to think that the problem might be uneven lead deposits on the tops of the pistons, so the next time I had a long hill to climb I ran the engine as hard as I could and edged the speed up as the vibration decreased over the miles. By the time I got to my destination 110 miles distant pistons had cleared themselves of the lead deposits and the vibration was gone.

    But no one mentioned these engine the engine killing problems that lead caused but focused instead on a problem (valve seat wear) that tended to only show up in older marine engines. Glad that lead is gone and think society will be better as less and less shows up in our environment.

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