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Exhausted but clean: Germany goes unleaded

In a surprise reversal, the macho-car country of West Germany is finally outlawing dirty exhausts. Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann - who opposed the notion as late as a month ago - is submitting legislation forbidding leaded gas. And a random on-and-off-Autobahn sampling of five Mercedes and BMW drivers - the class that has adamantly opposed such restrictions - turned up only approval of the move.

''A gentlemanly idea,'' commented one.

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''I wouldn't mind going slower,'' said another. ''I'd even make a little more (financial) sacrifice for it.''

Perhaps it's the effect of consciousness-raising by the countercultural Greens. Perhaps it's a victory of the traditional German reverence for nature.

Whatever the reason, West Germany is set to follow America's and Japan's example - and take the lead in Europe - in going unleaded by 1986. Under a proposal approved by the center-right Cabinet on July 20 and due to be enacted into legislation in the fall, new automobiles must be equipped with catalytic converters by Jan. 1, 1986. Older vehicles will have a grace period in which to be converted. The additional cost per car will probably average about 100-150 marks ($400-$600).

In one of its last acts before summer recess, the conservative Bundesrat (upper house) majority has passed a proposal that would halve the sulfur content of light oil and diesel fuel. This would lower West Germany's present sulfur-dioxide emissions by an estimated 8 percent. Sulfur emission is thought to be the main cause of acid-rain killing of forests.

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