THE LIES OF UNLEADED PETROL - Part 1
Oil companies convinced us that unleaded petrol
is safer for our health and environment than leaded petrol.
By their failure to disclose all the facts, we have been seriously
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Compiled by Catherine Simons, B.Sc.
From articles by Peter Sawyer, Graham Allum and Simon Grose, as
NEXUS Magazine, Volume 2, #25 (April-May
PO Box 30, Mapleton Qld 4560 Australia.
Telephone: +61 (0)7 5442 9280; Fax: +61 (0)7 5442 9381
From our web page at:
The very terms "leaded" and "unleaded" are
misleading. They give the impression that "leaded" petrol is
contaminated with something nasty, namely lead, while "unleaded" is
somehow pristine, pure. Whilst it is true that "leaded" petrol
contains lead, and lead is not a nice substance to have spewing out
of the exhaust pipes of millions of cars, the truth is that unleaded
petrol has even nastier properties. Let's start at the beginning.
When internal combustion engines were first developed for the
automobile, they ran on a substance known as "motor spirit". By
today's standards, motor spirit was an exceptionally "clean" fuel;
properly burnt in an efficient engine, the main exhaust products were
water vapour, carbon dioxide and some trace carbonic elements and
particles. There were two main problems with motor spirit. First and
foremost, it was a highly refined product which cost the oil
companies far more to produce than what they wanted to spend, or what
they thought they could charge if the automobile was really to take
off in a big way. Secondly, the original combustion engines ran at
very low compression ratios compared to today. As the vehicle
manufacturers strove to produce ever faster, more powerful engines,
they gradually raised the compression ratios, as this is one of the
easiest ways of gaining more power from any given-sized power plant.
So, for a period, these two problems developed side by side until
they eventually collided with the development of the V-8 engine. On
the one hand, fuels were becoming less and less refined, and
therefore more contaminated with products that adversely affected
engine efficiency. On the other hand, power plants were being
developed which employed ever higher compression ratios and required
ever more exacting performance from the fuel used. With the advent of
the high-compression engine, a point was reached where cars would not
run satisfactorily on the product being supplied by the oil
companies. An engine under load would develop a condition known as
"pinging", where the fuel mixture would explode due to compression
before the right time, causing rough running, stalling going up
hills, and so on.
There was only a shortlist of answers. Vehicle manufacturers could
go back to designing low-compression engines, the oil companies could
go back to producing a highly refined product, or something would
have to be found that could be added to stop the fuel pre-igniting.
The first choice was unacceptable to the manufacturers. They had long
since embarked on a marketing strategy that demanded ever bigger,
ever more powerful power plants every year. Nobody was prepared to
take the risk of producing a less-efficient, less powerful engine
than the one offered the year before. The second choice was
unacceptable to the oil companies. They had perfected the technique
of producing a fuel with a minimum of refining, that could still be
burned in engines, at such a low price and in such quantities that
they were well on their way to becoming the richest, most powerful
companies on Earth. They had no intention of greatly increasing the
cost of their product, thereby turning many people off the
"advantages" and "economy" of owning their very own car.
The third choice was the only acceptable one. All that was needed
was to find some product, something that could be obtained cheaply,
that could be added to petrol to reduce its tendency to "ping" under
compression. Common lead was found to have all the right properties,
and so "leaded" petrol was born.
By the late 'sixties, supplies of high-grade, low-sulphur,
low-nitrate oil were becoming scarce enough to command premium
prices. This type of oil was favoured by the petroleum producers,
since removing these contaminants to an acceptable level is difficult
and costly. The companies were refining increasing amounts of the
cheaper, high-sulphur, high-nitrate oil, but using the same old
processes. This in turn led to ever higher levels of sulphur dioxide
and nitrogen oxide in vehicle emissions, and people were starting to
complain-if not about the environmental effect, then at least about
the smell. The smog banks over the bigger American and Australian
cities during this period were not, as most people believe, the
result of so many more cars on the road, although this, of course,
was a contributing factor. The main cause was the vastly increased
levels of sulphur/nitrogen oxides in the vehicle emissions because of
the higher levels of contamination in the fuels themselves. The oil
companies were once again faced with the dilemma of cleaning up their
product or finding another solution that did not affect their
profits. The chemical theories and practices of catalytic conversion
had been known for many years.
It had always been known to the oil companies that they could use
these processes to further refine their petroleum products. This,
however, would have meant major upgradings of their refineries. Far
better if they could get somebody else to foot the bill. Even better
if they could get somebody to meet the cost of total responsibility
for all the oxides.
In the 'fifties, a lot of work was done trying to utilise the CO2
from such fixtures as coal and oil electric power stations to
increase plant growth. These efforts failed because of the harmful
effects of the concentrations of other pollutants in the exhausts.
These were principally the same sulphur/nitrogen oxides. At the time
of these experiments, it was discovered that passing the exhaust
gases through a filter of platinum caused a catalytic conversion of
the oxides to other products which could then be prevented from
escaping into the greenhouses used for food production. The problem
at the time was that it was not economically feasible to do this:
platinum converters are very expensive things, and they do eventually
wear out and require replacing. There was an added problem that the
eventual by-products were in many cases even more harmful than the
original oxides. This information then remained unused for some
THE BIG CON
Eventually the blankets of sulphur and nitrogen oxides, better
known as smog, grew so thick and so unbearable that "public opinion"
caused America's legislators to start looking for answers. Obviously
the place to start was with the oil companies. The oil companies
announced quite loudly, and mostly erroneously, that the problem was
"so many cars".
There were only two solutions, they said: either limit the number
of cars, or put something into the cars to "change" and limit the
emissions. Was such a thing possible, asked the legislators?
Certainly, replied the oil companies. Let us tell you about
"catalytic converters" which can be fitted to the exhaust system of
The legislators, although they toyed with the concept, were not
about to try and seriously interfere with people's rights to drive
motor cars. Such action was perceived as electoral suicide,
especially when there was the alternative "magic bullet" solution of
converters available. Neither were they about to listen to all the
"extremists" who were trying to tell them that the problem was in the
type of oil being refined in the first place, and the only long-term
solution was to get the oil companies to clean up their act. Such
people contribute very little to election campaigns; the petrol
chemical giants contribute millions. There was only one problem left
for the oil companies. Unfortunately, while platinum doesn't react to
any great degree with the products of burnt petrol, it reacts very
readily with lead-so readily, in fact, that burning a single tankful
of "leaded" petrol in a car with a catalytic converter will render
the converter useless. (This is the reason it is illegal to put
"leaded" petrol in the fuel tank of a car designed to run on the
Trouble was, the oil companies couldn't simply stop putting lead
in petrol, because the original reason for its presence-to stop
"pinging"-still existed. There were available alternative additives
that could be used, but these all had the disadvantage that,
untreated, they produced emissions far more deadly than even the
lead. On the plus side, however, these emissions could be filtered
out by catalytic converters. What was needed, then, was a campaign to
convince people that "leaded" petrol was a grave danger to the
environment, and that the only solution was to cease using it,
replace it with the "unleaded" variety, and then run the emissions
through a catalytic converter. Such a campaign would ensure that
legislation was passed forcing the fitting of catalytic converters,
which would overcome the original problem for the oil companies-the
increased levels of sulphur and nitrates in their fuel. You see, the
campaign never had anything to do with lead: it was simply a matter
of convincing people to use a fuel that wouldn't wreck the
converters, so that the petroleum companies didn't have to spend any
more money refining the oil and could get away with selling a dirtier
product, forcing the motorist to bear both the responsibility and the
cost of trying to clean up the air.
Anybody who doubts it was the quality of the petrol rather than
the number of cars which caused the massive increase in smog in the
period in question, need only look to actual figures. While it is
true that the number of cars in use was increasing, the rate of
increase was fairly steady. At the height of the "smog wars",
however, the levels of emissions were increasing at nearly four times
the rate of growth of car ownership. On top of that, this was the
period where petrol was starting to get more expensive, and
"economical" engines were becoming the order of the day. That is,
although both car ownership and petrol consumption were on the
increase, rate of ownership far outstripped rate of increase of
(Source: Peter Sawyer, Green Hoax Effect, Groupacumen
Publishing, Wodonga, Victoria, Australia, 1990)
- HEALTH RISKS FROM ULP! -
As you are aware, we have been told that
our old cars must go because of their 'dirty' exhausts, in particular
the lead issuing forth and causing great public health problems.
Dr David Warren was the guest speaker at the quarterly meeting of the
AOMC (Vic) on 28 February 1994. Dr Warren is a retired Research
Scientist for the Department of Defence and was the Energy Resources
adviser to the Victorian Government back in the early/mid-'80s when
the ULP debate was gathering momentum. Here is a condensed summary of
Dr Warren's address.
"In the early 1920s, a fellow called Thomas Midgie was looking for
something to combine with the free radicals to stop 'knocking'. He
found that things like platinum, silver and lead were able to hold
these free radicals. Midgie figured that if he could get lead oxide
spread through the mixture, sooner or later the free radicals would
bump into a bit of lead oxide, which forms lead dioxide, as lead has
four bonds, but that breaks down to lead, Pb2, and oxygen, O2, but
slowed down the reaction.
"In searching for a way to get the lead spread through the
mixture, Midgie found a compound called lead tetraethyl which is
similar to the combinations in the groups making up petrol. The first
good thing about it is because it is like petrol, it is soluble in
petrol. The second is that it vaporises like petrol, which means that
the lead tetraethyl is dotted around in the mixture. The third thing:
it breaks down to lead at upper cylinder temperatures, lead atoms
spread around and the ethyls are let go. Then the lead does its job,
combining with the free radicals and slowing down the reaction.
"Midgie's research took the octane number from 50 to 65; then
research at the refinery introduced crackling reforming and improved
the octane number past 89; then, with further developments and money,
they got the octane number up to 110 for aviation fuel.
ENTER THE GREENIES
"'Clean up car exhausts' was the cry. By 1975, lead was being
reduced in petrol because lead is a poison-that is a general
statement; however, to get the fact exact you should say lead is a
poison when it is absorbed into the body.
"Now, the fact that lead is a poison if absorbed, does it follow
that the lead in our bodies is from the lead in petrol? That was the
debate in the early '80s. There were a large number of contradictory
reports in the papers, and the National Energy Advisory Committee
reported 'no single case of clinical lead poisoning has ever been
demonstrated to be due to automotive emissions of airborne lead'.
"There were tests and arguments all over the world. In Frankfurt,
the government decided they would cut the lead in petrol from 0.4 to
0.15 grams per litre, about two thirds. Now if the lead was a
problem, it should have an effect on the community. If petrol is
causing part of the lead in the community and you cut it by two
thirds, any scientist knows it must have an effect, otherwise it had
nothing to do with it.
"The nett result: 'Since the changes observed are only of the
order of statistical scatter (that is, you would never measure
anything and get the same thing twice), this indicates that lead from
petrol did not contribute to uptake by ingestion through significant
deposition on food and utensils as has been suggested. If it had
done, greater and continuing decrease in blood levels in the
community should have been observed.'
"In other words, they measured nearly a thousand people over a
five-year period and there was no change at all despite cutting the
lead content in petrol.
"In London we had Professor Lowthur of the University of London
pointing out that the lead that comes out of the exhaust has been
baked at 2,000-3,000 degrees Centigrade, like a house brick, but so
small that you need a microscope to see it. It doesn't get absorbed
through the lungs and doesn't even dissolve in the diluted
hydrochloric acid of the stomach.
"It appears that the lead in the air is not the source of the lead
that is observed in the community.
"Besides, you can measure the lead coming out of the cars and it
settles. You measure it as grams per cubic metre at the edge of the
road, but if you go back ten feet it is less because it's very heavy
dust. Even though it's very small particles it is very heavy."
ENTER THE POLITICIANS
(In 1983 Dr Warren was the scientific adviser to the committee for
"The question came up: 'Will we ban lead in petrol?' The real
question was will we have ULP?' The real reason for ULP was that
people wanted to fit catalytic converters on their cars to get rid of
the nitric oxides, carbon monoxide and unburnt petrol that came out,
but the lead spoilt the catalytic converters. That was the reason
that the rest of the world gave up lead in petrol. The other
countries banned it to bring in converters; we banned it because we
think it's dangerous.
"So I (Dr Warren) prepared a speech and convinced the
Committee-about a dozen people from both parties-that lead didn't
need to be banned and that we didn't need lead-free petrol because
the evidence wasn't there.
"I prepared a subsequent speech presented to Parliament by the
then-State Member for Ballarat. At the same time there was a paper
from Dr Bell, the Director of Health of the New South Wales
"Dr Bell asked what was going to be added to the petrol to raise
the octane number if the lead was removed: 'If the lead is taken out,
you have to add other things to run them in our cars; we put in
benzene, toluene, xylene, dimethylbenzene or mesitylene. They're all
ring compounds and the dangers are that some of them are declared
carcinogens and the others are suspected carcinogens. We're going to
cut lead even though there is no proof that it does anything wrong,
and we're introducing substances which will ultimately be affecting
the cancer rates in our country.'
"The answer was: 'We have converters and they will destroy them',
but we all know that converters don't work until they are hot-about
the first three miles or so-and every time you fill up, the vapours
are coming off.
"Now when the speech was delivered to Parliament, there were only
two people listening: myself (Dr Warren), to see that he got it
right, and the Member giving the speech. It seems that the prevailing
attitude was: 'Don't confuse us with the facts; our mind is made up,
the people want it and that is where the votes are.'
"Nobody listened to that speech because it was party policy: both
parties said, 'No, we've decided-it doesn't matter what the man says;
go and have a drink at the bar and when the bell rings we'll come in
and vote'-and that's how it was decided!"
ULP HEALTH RISK
Even at that stage, Dr Warren had found that the lead problem was
highly overstated and that the potential hazards from the aromatic
octane enhancers-like benzene-were greater than the perceived lead
"In fact, this stuff appears to be so dangerous, potentially lethal,
that I urge you not to use it in any car not fitted with a catalytic
converter. Don't use it in your mower, chainsaw, whipper-snipper or
outboard motor, and don't wash parts in it. If any gets on your skin,
wash it off immediately. Avoid the fumes when refuelling and don't
allow anyone near the exhaust, particularly when the exhaust system
is cold. Remember that catalytic converters don't work until they
reach some 400 degrees C."
In Britain, this risk is so clear that the National Society for
Clean Air has removed their support for ULP!
Dr Warren's research showed that the lead in blood comes not from
breathing airborne lead but from eating and drinking it-that is,
principally from soldered food containers, lead-based paints and lead
In fact research showed that the blood lead levels were higher in
country people drinking bore water, such as the New Guinea
highlanders and peoples on remote islands, without motor vehicles
than in blood samples taken from those living in the heart of
You will recall in the past I have referred to a device invented
by Mr A. Bodycomb. This device would do essentially the same job as a
catalytic converter, that is, remove carbon dioxide and unburnt fuel
from car exhausts, but it would also remove lead-so there would be no
need for ULP!
This device was tested in the early '70s, but those testing it
seemed conveniently to forget the test results later, favouring
instead the dry converter that we now have.
Mr Bodycomb lives in Melbourne and even now cannot get anyone
interested enough to have a look at it.
(Source: Extracted from an article by Graham Allum, published
in Restored Cars Magazine #104)
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