UN hails green triumph as leaded petrol is banned throughout Africa

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Lead is banned from petrol throughout Africa from today, in a virtually unheralded victory for international environmental diplomacy.

The move, a late achievement of the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, is a crucial step towards eliminating the metal from the world's fuel altogether within the next three years.

Lead, which was phased out in Western countries after it was found to harm children's brains, poses an even greater hazard to poor children in developing countries who already suffer damage from malnutrition.

Finally removed from British petrol exactly six years ago, after years of campaigning, it has been known to be dangerous for two millennia. Pliny the Elder warned of the hazards of its fumes in the first century AD.

It was first introduced into petrol in 1921 to prevent engines "knocking", and over the next decades millions of tons of it were turned into a fine aerosol and spread around the world by cars. Research shows that we have about 500 times as much of the poison in our bodies as our primitive ancestors did.

When the Earth Summit met three years ago, only one of Africa's 49 nations - Sudan - had eliminated lead from its fuel. But governments and industry got together there, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to campaign to get rid of it continent-wide by the end of 2005. Today the last remaining country, South Africa, has abolished lead in its fuel, and the UN is about to launch a new campaign to get it banned worldwide by 2008.

Nick Nuttall of UNEP says that 28 countries are known still to use lead, from Cuba to North Korea. "It is particularly dangerous to small children in cities who are at the same level as car exhausts," Mr Nuttall said yesterday. "We are determined that the next generation of children will grow up without leaded petrol and the health risks it brings."