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Leaded gas, a poisonous 100-year-old innovation, is no longer available for cars anywhere

Although most countries phased out leaded gas decades ago, one last country ended its use just this year.

Sean Szymkowski
It all started with Gran Turismo. From those early PlayStation days, Sean was drawn to anything with four wheels. Prior to joining the Roadshow team, he was a freelance contributor for Motor Authority, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports. As for what's in the garage, Sean owns a 2016 Chevrolet SS, and yes, it has Holden badges.
Sean Szymkowski
2 min read
Gas pump

Unleaded fuel only.

Educational Images/Getty Images

No, you did not travel back to the 1970s when the US started to take a hard look at leaded gasoline and its emissions, nor 1996 when the US officially banned the fuel. It's 2021 and the final drop of leaded gas is no longer available for passenger vehicles. The United Nations Environment Programme announced Tuesday that Algeria ended the availability of leaded gas for cars locally, prompting the announcement.

"For the first time since 1923, no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol," the office said in its announcement. "The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment."

General Motors first experimented with leaded gas in 1921, hoping to alleviate engine knock. That's when an engine may damage itself from vibrations while burning low-grade gasoline. Knock still occurs today, but we've come a long way in keeping internal-combustion engines under control. With a teaspoon of tetraethyl lead, that 1921 engine smoothed out entirely, which paved the way for what was once thought of as a 20th century breakthrough.

Instead, studies showed leaded fuel was a massive contributor to a slew of health issues -- its fumes are extremely poisonous to human beings. Burning leaded fuel became associated with heart disease, cancer, increased risk of stroke and even developmental delays in children, according to a 1979 study by American pediatrician Herbert Needleman. Come 1996, the US banned the fuel, with numerous other nations following suit. In 2002, the UN started its Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, a campaign to phase out the toxic fuel from pumps around the world.

Today, these bans are credited with saving the lives of 1.2 million people every year who would otherwise be exposed to the effects of leaded gas. A study by the University of California further estimated it saves the global economy $2.4 trillion a year in medical bills, lost wages, incarceration charges and other expenses.

There is a caveat to this good news. Leaded fuel is still used for small aircraft, including in the US. According to an NBC News report this past April, approximately 170,000 planes and helicopters with piston engines still top off with the poisonous fuel. These aircraft remain stuck in a sea of red tape between the aviation industry and federal government.

Watch this: How Porsche E-fuel aims to make gas engine cars as clean as electric ones