Campaigners call for tetraethyl lead to be phased out in UK due to toxic emission fears

Campaigners are calling on the UK government to follow the EU’s lead on taking further action against the substance of high concern tetraethyl lead (TEL), citing fears that 370,000 households are being exposed to toxic emissions.

TEL was a common additive in petrol in the 70s but was banned in most developed countries by the end of the 80s, and then almost  globally by the early 2000s after being linked to widespread health impacts such as heart disease, cancers, reproductive issues and brain development issues in children. 

The UK banned leaded petrol in 1999, however TEL is still used as an additive in fuel for small piston-engine aircraft used by hobbyist pilots.

A study published last year by the University of Kent found that the majority of aviation fuel sold in the UK is leaded, and it is estimated that the 370,000 households which live within a 4km radius are at risk from exposure to lead emissions.

The study also found that emissions from leaded aviation fuel may be 14,000 times higher than previously thought.

The chemical was added to the European Chemicals Agency’s authorisation list in April 2022, and is set to be phased out from 2025. The Environmental Protection Agency in the US has also recognised the harms of tetraethyl lead and has a proposal to eliminate leaded aviation fuel by 2030.

However the UK, as it is noted in the letter, which was sent to the government from charities including Green Alliance, Wildlife and Countryside Link and Breast Cancer UK, has not made a commitment to phase out the chemical and is the last remaining manufacturer of tetraethyl lead globally. This is through the Cheshire based company Innospec Ltd.

Chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Richard Benwell, said: “These examples are signposts at a chemicals crossroads for the government – set a regulatory lead and phase out toxic chemicals, or rely on voluntary approaches and accept that people in the UK will be exposed to more toxic pollution than other countries.

“The government should intervene to end the use of tetraethyl lead and commit to a phase-out of the unnecessary use of harmful chemicals across the board in the UK Chemicals Strategy.”

The UK chemicals strategy, promised in the government’s 25-year environmental plan set out in 2018, has seen continued delays with the last update being that there is “no timeline” for updates to be published let alone for the report.

Campaigners have argued that the Health and Safety Executive, the agency responsible for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (UK REACH) regulation since Brexit, should add this chemical to the UK authorisation list.

The list aims to ensure that substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are progressively replaced by less dangerous substances or technologies where feasible alternatives exist, with those identified on the list given a cut off date (sunset date) for when they can still be put on the market.

But so far, the UK’s stance is not to apply further controls to the use of tetraethyl lead by adding it to the UK REACH authorisation list.

Zoe Avison, a policy analyst at Green Alliance, said: “We’re seeing growing divergence which we fear is a result of the regulator’s insufficient capacity, rather than because it will deliver better protections.

“If we end up in a position where hazardous substances are banned in Europe but not in the UK it will not be in the interests of the environment or people’s health.”

She noted that if the fuel is phased out in Europe before it is phased out in the UK then this could see higher proportions flooding into the UK, and subsequently higher TEL emissions. Avison also added that new planes are still being built that rely on old leaded air fuel, and without starting the authorisation process now this will continue.

A government spokesman told the Telegraph: “The government and key organisations in the general aviation sector are considering alternatives to the use of tetraethyl lead in aviation gasoline – a blend used by private, light aircraft.

“We are keen to promote the use of unleaded fuels across the sector, and decisions on what is included on the UK REACH list of banned substances are kept under review based on the evidence available.”

A HSE spokesperson told ENDS: “We concluded that given intensive efforts appear to be underway to identify substitutes for this substance, additional regulatory pressure is unlikely to speed up the rate of substitution for this chemical.

“HSE will continue to keep the position of tetraethyl lead (TEL) and the UK REACH Authorisation list under review and may revisit its regulatory approach when the technical evaluation of potential alternatives in aviation fuel are completed over the coming years.”

HSE also confirmed to ENDS that it has received a copy of the letter. It noted it is “feeding into” the government’s response.