The government’s Clean Fuels Programme says that oil companies must remove lead from petrol by January 2006. As consumers, we can’t complain about that – who wants to breathe in more lead oxide than we have to? And leaded petrol has already been phased out completely in Japan, USA and most of Europe. But the lead was there for a reason, and the chemicals that will replace lead in our petrol are not safe either – in fact, there is evidence that it’s even more dangerous under some conditions.
Lead has traditionally been used in petrol because it boosts the octane level, giving our engines higher compression and making our cars faster and more efficient. Without lead, other additives must be added to get the same result. But this is where the problem arises. The Department of Minerals and Energy is working with the petrol industry, car manufacturers and the South African Bureau of Standards to try and figure out some new fuel specifications – saying what is allowed to go into petrol and what is not. It is still not clear what these specifications will be.
Among the alternatives to lead are some even more dangerous chemicals. Probably the worst is benzene – which is known to cause cancer – and another is a compound called MMT (methyl cyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl). When the Cape Times, in 2002, heralded the Clean Air Programme as a boost for health and the environment, it said the ban on leaded fuel would be accompanied by a banning of MMT in 2006. But Engen was still talking about MMT as an option in late 2003, and it is not clear that the specifications committee will rule out its use in future. The same goes for benzene – are we going to be breathing this in instead of lead? No-one is saying. The whole Clean Air process has not been well communicated to the public. Even the Department of Mineral and Energy’s web site has little useful information on it at all.