Thursday, 1 November 2007

Lead-free petrol - a success! But.....?

Reports have just been published to show a clear correlation between the banning of lead additives in petrol and reduced levels of violence, on an international scale.

"The results are dramatic. Blood-lead levels have fallen by roughly two-thirds in British adults and by between 70 per cent and 80 per cent among their children. This is splendid news for the nation's children. A couple of years ago, the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that lead levels in children of more than 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood caused "measurable and irreversible" damage to their physical and mental development. A decade ago, most British children exceeded that level; today, most are below it."

This is a great vindication to those of us who campaigned in the early eighties (it was a long time ago, my children) to force the removal of lead from petrol. The campaign was called CLEAR -Campaign for Lead-Free Air - and eventually persuaded the then government of the scientific case.

One by one, environmental efforts reverse some of the damage caused by the 'progress' of civilisation. DDT, CFCs, the job was hard, but succeeded in the end.

But (there's always a 'but') another view suggests a correlation between the replacement of lead by other compounds, and the rapid decline of house sparrows.

Dr Summers-Smith asks "While the removal of lead from petrol was unquestionably right, could it be that it was at the cost of introducing other undesirable materials to the environment?"

"There are at least two substances used in unleaded petrol that are potentially hazardous - MTBE and benzene. As the disappearance of the house sparrow from our large cities correlates with the introduction of unleaded petrol, the possibility that such substances are involved surely requires immediate investigation - if for no other reason than as an application of the precautionary principle."

Independent journalist Mike McCarthy has won the RSPB Medal this month for this kind of reporting - the article is shown here.

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