Unleaded petrol became mandatory in New Zealand in 1996, but a newly published study led by the University of Otago, Wellington reveals there was a 20 year delay as a result of deliberate lobbying by the lead additives industry, poorly informed and vacillating politicians, and a bureaucracy which lacked technical expertise.
This novel study of pollution and politics analyses the literature and reports from 1974 to 1996 and finds that there was clear international evidence that lead in petrol was a known serious health risk, particularly for children. It has recently been published in the international journal 'Environmental Health'.
Despite this evidence, the study shows that successive New Zealand Governments and the bureaucracy consistently claimed that there was no urgency to introduce unleaded petrol in this country.
"A major reason for this procrastination was industry lobbying of Government. The lead additive supplier, Associated Octel, which was owned by major oil companies, provided counter information over 20 years in order to undermine international scientific studies," says lead researcher Dr Nick Wilson from the University of Otago's Department of Public Health in Wellington.
Modifications in the early 1980s to the one refinery in the country, owned by the NZ Refining Company, also limited the ability to supply unleaded petrol. These changes were made after it was already well-known that leaded petrol was a health risk.
The study found other fundamental and significant reasons for the long delays were:
The absence of a precautionary principle as part of risk management policy in regard to children's health, even when all the evidence pointed in this direction.
Weak policy machinery and lack of technical expertise within the Ministry of Energy and the Department of Health.
A closed and negative attitude by the bureaucracy and Government to input from the wider community, including scientists and non-government organisations.
"The New Zealand experience shows yet again the weakness in decision-making processes that comes about when no single government agency akin to the US Environmental Protection Agency has overall responsibility for an important environmental health issue."
Even when there was international and New Zealand evidence in the late 1970s and early 1980s that lead might be a threat to child health and development, nothing was done. Authorities still continued to claim that international research did not apply to this country, despite scientific advice to the contrary from the Royal Society of New Zealand.
"There was a credibility/denial gap a kilometre wide between scientists and governments on this issue," says Dr Wilson. "It was exceedingly naïve to think that industry would voluntarily remove lead from petrol without regulation. The manufacturers of the lead additives even wrote to the Department of Health suggesting that air monitoring should not occur near busy intersections as it was alarmist."
A co-author of the study, Dr John Horrocks, from the Wellington Institute of Technology, says that "the faith of politicians and officials that New Zealand was 'clean and green' and 'well-ventilated', to use some of their phrases, has also held back progress on other forms of air pollution."
"There are some lessons here from the lead additives story. We seem to think we are a special case, even though vehicle emissions are known to cause as many premature deaths in New Zealand as road crashes. Until recently New Zealand had some of the world's dirtiest diesel. Though the Clean Air Council recommended in 1974 that vehicles pass emission tests, the most that older polluting cars have to do is to meet a feeble visible smoke test, finally introduced in 2006.
"Just as it took too long to get rid of lead, it is going to take more than a decade to clean up the vehicle fleet," he says.