Even the Romans knew that lead was toxic but the easy performance gains from adding lead to petrol were too tempting for the oil and car industry. There were many early warnings of toxic effects. The first factory making lead additive became known as the house of butterflies because of the hallucinations suffered by the workers. The deaths of dozens of workers and the madness of many more brought a temporary halt and a public health enquiry in the US, but industry pressure did not allow time for long-term exposure to be considered. Leaded petrol was launched on the world in 1926.
Sales peaked in the 1970s and 1980s and environmental lead contamination reached global proportions, with concentrations above pre-industrial values recorded in ice sheets, lake and marine sediments and peat deposits worldwide, along with the blood and milk teeth of children. In 1983 the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection called for leaded petrol sales to end in six years but the UK was one of the last European countries to completely remove leaded petrol from sale in 1999.
Average lead in UK air has dropped to around one fiftieth of what it was in 1980. Children’s blood lead levels have decreased from concentrations that were considered harmful to foetuses and small children and the cause of neurological and IQ problems.
Today health concerns about vehicle exhaust are focusing on the growing evidence about the harm from diesel emissions. It remains to be seen how Europe’s rush for diesel cars will be viewed in decades to come.