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In a bid to achieve a cleaner environment and improve public health, five West African countries — Benin, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Togo — have set a deadline of 2004 to phase out the distribution of leaded petrol from their territories.

The decision was taken in Cotonou, the capital of Benin Republic, at the end of last month under the aegis of the World Bank’s Clean Air Initiative in Sub-Saharan African Cities.

Top officials from the five West African nations agreed on a 15-point action plan to coordinate the gradual elimination of lead in petrol consumed in their countries.

Under the first phase, lead levels in petrol will be reduced to 0.15gms per litre, from the current 0.20gms per litre, by December 2003. By the following year, the petrol will become completely lead-free.

The action plan is a revision of an earlier plan adopted in Dakar, Senegal in June 2001, which set 2005 as the deadline for total phase-out of lead in petrol either produced or imported into the West African sub-region.

Of the five nations that met in Cotonou, Nigeria is the only producer of oil. Its position will therefore be critical to the success of the action plan, as it supplied most of the petrol consumed in West Africa.

The Cotonou action plan was largely guided by national strategies presented by Nigeria and Benin.

The extent of the health problems arising from the use of leaded petrol in Nigeria unknown, as there has not been a national survey to determine the lead level in the blood of the population.

But the Nigerian plan of action, which was drawn up and adopted last year, says that “isolated studies” indicate that these levels are very high compared to current acceptable limits. It adds that these levels “have consistently been associated with various pathological conditions such as anaemia, neuro-behavioural deficits, renal impairment, reproductive abnormalities and suppressed body defence system.”

Other negative effects of lead poisoning, particularly in children, include irreversible damage to the brain and the nervous system, stunted growth, behavioural disorders, visual and hearing problems and general impairment of intelligence.

In Nigeria, the cost of adapting refineries to produce unleaded instead of leaded petrol has been estimated at US$500 million.

The use of leaded petrol has been banned in many parts of the world. Currently, only some African countries and some Eastern European and Asian nations still use leaded petrol.

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Photo credit: Liz Gilbert, Courtesy of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation