The fight to get lead out of gasoline was one of NRDC’s first big public health victories—and one of the most far-reaching. Lead had been used in gasoline since the 1920s as an additive to make car engines run more smoothly. It worked beautifully in cars, but at a terrible cost to people. Many of the dangers of airborne lead, particularly to children, were known to industry and medical experts for decades; with time they became increasingly clear to the public. Exposure can cause brain, kidney, and cardiovascular damage in adults and kids. Even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s IQ level and shorten attention span, and children with lead in their blood are more likely to be aggressive, violent, and delinquent.
Armed with that knowledge, NRDC knew what needed to be done. In 1972, just two years after the organization was founded, it filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the EPA to force the removal of lead from gasoline supply. Successive presidential administrations balked at enforcing the ban, and it would take another six years of fighting off legal challenges and pushback from the industry before the first regulations were implemented. But by 1978, the phaseout of lead in gas had begun.
The benefits of the new rules were undeniable—for the public, for the planet, and for the auto industry. By 1991, average blood lead levels in the United States had dropped 77 percent. As a nation, we saved more than $10 for every $1 invested in the phaseout, thanks not only to reduced health costs but also to better, more efficient fuel. The new regulations on lead forced American carmakers to innovate and spurred the creation of fuel additives that were safer and superior to lead, reducing wear and tear on engines and improving fuel efficiency.
Beyond our borders, however, the tremendous toll brought about by airborne lead remained. As a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, NRDC conducted an unprecedented survey of leaded gasoline use in nations around the world, many of which had few protections in place to safeguard public health. The need for a global phaseout was obvious. Lower-income communities living near busy roads were bearing the brunt of the exposure, since 95 percent of lead emissions in these countries came from cars and trucks.
Over the next decade, and undeterred by naysayers, NRDC collaborated with the United Nations, governments, NGOs, industry leaders, and other environmental organizations to tackle the problem worldwide. In 2002, the organization helped form the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, with headquarters in Nairobi, to complete the removal of lead in gasoline—starting in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the years, the partnership’s campaign spread to more than 175 countries in every region of the world. Even holdouts such as North Korea and Myanmar were lead-free by 2013.
Today, we no longer need worry about lead emissions from cars and trucks. It’s gratifying to have come this far. It turns out once again that the “impossible,” the “impractical,” or the “too expensive” can be achieved, and at a fraction of the expected costs. “Getting the lead out of gasoline was a landmark public health achievement of our time,” says Erik Olson, director of NRDC’s Health & Environment program. “There are undoubtedly millions of children in communities all over the world who have learned more in school, who are better behaved, and who are growing up to earn more and to lead more productive lives because of this extremely important action.”
We often hear the same old arguments repeated as to why environmental problems are just too hard to tackle. Yet NRDC’s track record of actually solving them is encouraging. “That’s why we need organizations like NRDC with the skills, tenacity, and brainpower to win these fights,” Olson says. Next up: continuing to clean up diesel exhaust and working to protect communities from leaded drinking water and other contamination sources. The gasoline victory provides hope that no environmental problem, no matter how big, is insurmountable.