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More than half of motor fuel now used in Africa is lead-free, according to a World Bank report released at a conference in Nairobi last week.

Delegates at the meeting, held by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Bank, heard that 12 African nations have committed to phase out leaded petrol. Nine countries — Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sudan – have already switched entirely to unleaded fuel.

"Removing lead from petrol in Africa is proving to be one of the great environmental and health success stories of the early 21st century," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP.

Furthermore, Kenya's Minister of Energy, Ochilo Ayacko, pledged at the meeting that Kenya will be lead-free by the beginning of 2006. Currently, just four per cent of motor fuels in the country are unleaded.

According to the Global Lead Network, a non-governmental organisation that calls for lead in petrol to be phased out, African fuel has the world's highest content of lead, and high levels of dust help disperse the toxin, increasing likelihood of exposure.

Exposure to lead can damage human organs, including the kidneys and brain. Young children's nervous systems are particularly susceptible to lead exposure, which has been linked to reduced intelligence and behavioural disorders.

Most countries in North America, Europe and Asia have phased out lead — a prerequisite for introduction of catalytic converters, which can further reduce pollution emitted by vehicles. But Africa has lagged behind in the drive for cleaner fuel. The push for a lead-free fuel on the continent began with the Dakar declaration for the phasing-out of leaded fuel in 2001, at a time when only Sudan was lead-free.