May 19, 1996 in Nation/World

World Bank To Help In Phasing Out Lead Bank’s Loans Will Allow Countries To Do Away With Leaded Gasoline

Gene Kramer Associated Press

Thailand has joined the United States in demonstrating that health and other benefits of promoting the use of unleaded gasoline far outweigh the costs, the World Bank says in advising a worldwide phase-out of leaded fuel.

Governments at Habitat II, a U.N.-sponsored summit on urban problems scheduled for June 3-14 at Istanbul, Turkey, will be told that the bank is prepared to help them move unleading to the top of their environmental agendas, officials said in a report issued Saturday.

“The benefits of doing away with leaded gasoline are immediate and measurable, and far outweigh the costs,” according to Brazilian Caio Koch-Weser, managing director of the lending institution, which serves as a major source of credit for poor countries.

Reflecting “remarkable progress” in Thailand’s four-year phase-out concluded earlier this year, the average IQ of children in Bangkok rose four points as a result of declining levels of lead particles in the air, said Andrew Steer, British director of the bank’s environmental department.

The World Bank lent Thailand $90 million for its program of refinery conversion and public education to end use of leaded gasoline, which was blamed for 90 percent of airborne lead pollution in congested cities such as Bangkok.

Cities where people are still exposed to high lead levels include Algiers, Algeria; Cairo, Egypt; Cape Town, South Africa; Hong Kong; Jakarta, Indonesia; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Karachi, Pakistan; Lagos, Nigeria; Lima, Peru; Mexico City and Nairobi, Kenya.

Since introducing unleaded gasoline in the 1970s, the United States has “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,” the bank said.

U.S. studies showed that the decline in the use of leaded gas to less than 1 percent of U.S. consumption may have boosted engine life by as much as 150 percent. Meanwhile, the average blood-lead level for Americans has dropped from 16 micrograms a liter in 1976 to less than 3 micrograms today.

Lead additives are still used in “alarmingly large quantities” in Africa, many parts of the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, the bank warned.

Some European countries are only halfway or less toward the goal of ending use of leaded gasoline, the bank said. Governments now banning it include Austria, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Sweden and Slovakia. The West European Commission has recommended a phaseout since 1987.

“Children will be the greatest beneficiaries of a global phase-out,” said 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.”

Children are especially vulnerable because their digestive systems swiftly absorb minute particles of heavy metals like lead, the bank said. “They ingest contaminated dust and soil simply by putting their fingers in their mouths or by chewing on contaminated toys,” it said.

“Poor children are most at risk because malnourishment or physical stress intensifies disabilities caused by lead. For adults, even low levels of lead absorption (usually from breathing) cause hypertension, high blood pressure and heart disease.”

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