Study shows Australia as lead pollution champ of the Southern Hemisphere

13 April 2005

Research by Sydney University scientists has revealed that Australia alone contributed around a third of the Southern Hemisphere's vehicular lead fallout and remained the region's major single source of lead pollution for much of the 20th century.

In a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment, researchers Duncan Cook and Dr Stephen Gale of Sydney University's School of Geosciences, have shown that Australia was the first Southern Hemisphere country to adopt leaded petrol, in August 1932.

Lead, arguably the world's most widespread environmental pollutant, appears in the environment largely the result of the addition of lead to motor fuel and its dispersion in exhaust emissions. By the end of the last century over 90 per cent of atmospheric lead pollution came directly or indirectly from leaded petrol.

The team were surprising learn that little or no information existed as to when leaded petrol first became available in the Southern Hemisphere and what the contribution of leaded fuel has been to atmospheric pollution throughout the course of the 20th century. Eventually, they had to rely upon automotive journals and vehicle statistic to produce their findings.

'Even though leaded fuel was finally outlawed in Australia in 2002, toxic reservoirs of lead persist in the environment,' the researchers said. 'These may pollute soils, be reworked into rivers and creeks, and be taken up by plants and animals.

'Lead is toxic even at low concentrations. This makes it one of the most insidious of all environmental hazards and many researchers have claimed that there is no level below which exposure is harmless. The resultant contamination was widespread, polluting places as remote as Antarctica.

'With environmental residence times of centuries or millennia, the problem of lead in the environment is not likely to be easily or quickly resolved,' they said.

For further information contact:
Dr Stephen Gale Ph: +61 2 9351 3308 or
Jake O'Shaughnessy
ph: +61 2 9351 4312
m: 0421 617861