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NAIROBI, Kenya, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - African countries are phasing out lead gasoline in increasing numbers because of the hazards it poses to human health and the environment. Around 90 percent of the world's petrol supplies are now unleaded, but the 10 percent that is still leaded is concentrated in developing countries, especially Africa. Research that will be presented to some 100 environment ministers attending the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council taking place all next week in Nairobi shows that within five years most African countries will have phased out, or be close to phasing out, the lead in gasoline.

"This is one of, if not the, first concrete outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held six months ago in Johannesburg, South Africa," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

"The voluntary initiative, a so called Type II project, was born there with funding and support from governments, the private sector including the oil and automobile industries, civil society and international organizations like UNEP," Toepfer explained. "Let us hope that the success being achieved, bodes well for the other Type II voluntary partnerships in areas ranging from coral reefs to environmental law."

As a symbolic gesture toward the lead free goal, the onsite filling station at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, which currently sells both leaded and unleaded petrol, will sell only unleaded fuel in the future.

A survey carried out by UNEP, a member of the global Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, shows that four countries - Egypt, Libya, Mauritius and the Sudan - are now completely free of leaded gasoline. This year four other nations or dependent territories - Morocco, Reunion, Tunisia and Western Sahara - will join them.

Another 22 nations, including Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Togo and Uganda, are in the process of drawing up action plans to phase out leaded fuel by 2005 to 2006 or have already done so, the research indicates.

Toepfer said, "It has been known for many years that lead in petrol or gasoline is a serious health risk particularly to children. Studies have demonstrated that children living near roads and in urban areas where leaded petrol is used can suffer brain damage with symptoms including lower intelligence scores. This is why it has been phased out and banned in countries in Western Europe, North America, parts of the Far East and elsewhere and why it is being rapidly phased out in many other parts of the world."

But in Africa, due to lack of technology and lack of awareness of the health risks, leaded gasoline is still used.

Rob De Jong, UNEP's program officer for urban environment, said motoring myths make some vehicle owners reluctant to use the cleaner fuel. "Many people who drive older cars are convinced that they will suffer engine damage if they fill up with unleaded fuel," De Jong said.

But this really is not the case. Only under the extreme conditions of a laboratory test can effects be seen, he said. "In the real world, under normal motoring conditions prevailing in Africa, unleaded petrol works well if not better in most if not all vehicles." With unleaded gas motorists are able to drive vehicles with catalytic converters which can "reduce emissions by 90 percent," said De Jong.

Lead is not the only pollutant being targeted by the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicle. Others include sulfur, which is linked with effects including smog and acid rain.

The WSSD and its Plan of Implementation has targets and timetables for a wide range of sustainable development issues. It calls for the rapid, global phaseout of leaded gasoline. This work is also being guided by the Dakar Declaration of March 2002 in which countries backed a phaseout of leaded gas by 2005.

Partners have pledged nearly $500,000 for this, says UNEP. The agency is serving as a "clearing house," through which the various partners will gather and exchange information on issues, such as the status of phaseouts in developing countries.: