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Europe stalls on move to switch to lead-free gasoline

Wonderfully clean, lead-free air is something everybody in Western Europe wants. It is also something no one is likely to get for some time to come.

A broad-based coalition of environmental and consumer organizations from the 10 European Community (EC) countries linked hands in late October and launched a massive publicity campaign aimed at persuading EC lawmakers to ban lead in gasoline throughout Western Europe. The group says gasoline is responsible for 90 percent of the lead in the air we now breathe.

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The oil and automobile industries have welcomed the initiative. But they have also said it will mean redesigning automobile engines and oil-refinery equipment - a task that will take time and cost money.

What the new coalition wants - for a start - is the EC to approve legislation obliging automobile manufacturers to make cars capable of running on unleaded gasoline; refineries to make lead-free fuel; and governments in Western Europe to make laws lowering the allowable lead content of gasoline to 0.15 grams per liter - all by 1985.

''Unrealistic,'' an oil industry spokesman said.

Current EC legislation (in force since Jan. 1, 1981) requires EC governments to fix the maximum allowable lead content of gasoline manufactured in their countries at 0.40 g/l - but not less than 0.15 g/l. So far, West Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Greece have either lowered the limit to 0.15 g/l or have promised to do so, while France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg have held fast at 0.40 g/l. Ireland was granted a derogation for five years at 0 .64 g/l.

''What's completely crazy,'' explained Des Wilson, chairman of the British group, the Campaign for Lead-free Air (CLEAR), ''is that by setting a minimum limit of 0.15 g/l, the EC has actually prevented individual governments from banning lead in gasoline altogether.''

For their part, officials from the major oil and car companies in Western Europe argue that the cost of redesigning and retooling their equipment to produce lead-free fuel and vehicles made to run on it would be high. In Britain, for example, the tab for the former has been put at about (STR)200 million (about $340 million) and for the latter at another (STR)350 million (about $595 million).

In the US, however, where unleaded gasoline has been available since 1975, the added cost does not appear to have been unreasonably high.

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''Moreover,'' according to Stanley Johnson, a former senior official in the EC's environment directorate and now a British member of the European Parliament , ''the lesson learned from the US experience is that there is very little difference in the price of leaded and lead-free gasoline.''

Environmentalists point out that whereas the horrors of lead poisoning have been known for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 1920s that ambitious entrepreneurs began adding lead to gasoline as an anti-knock agent used to boost the octane rating, also making the fuel more efficient.

''This was the beginning of what has since become a much larger and potentially much more dangerous problem,'' an environmentalist explained.

The extent of the problem was revealed first in research done nearly 20 years ago. Since then, numerous studies have linked lead to various intelligence and behavioral disorders. Even low levels of lead in the blood - once thought harmless - have been shown to be dangerous, especially in children and pregnant women.

Public opinion appears to be running strongly in favor of banning lead in gasoline - despite recent industry estimates showing consumption to be about 6 percent greater with leaded than with unleaded gasoline. A recent poll in Britain showed that 8 to 9 percent of those questioned wanted lead in gasoline banned. Nearly half thought lead was a ''very serious hazard.''

CLEAR's Des Wilson says: ''Under pressure from industry, the EC has so far only taken incomplete and intermediate steps toward eliminating lead from gasoline. The EC's response is no longer acceptable to us - or to the man in the street in Western Europe.''

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