UK urged to ban lead fuel exports

generic petrol pump
Image caption Tetraethyl lead fuel additives were banned in the UK in 1999

Environmental groups have urged the UK government to ban a chemicals company from exporting a lead fuel additive that is responsible for long-term damage to human health.

Innospec claims to be the world's only producer of tetraethyl lead - a compound first added to petrol in the 1920s to help it burn more slowly.

Tetraethyl is banned in the UK, but is legal in some developing countries.

Innospec was not immediately available for comment.

But the company, which is US-owned but has its manufacturing base in the UK, says on its website that it aspires to high standards of corporate governance, accountability and ethical behaviour.

Scientists say that exposure to lead in petrol can lead to a reduction in children's IQs, and more recent studies have linked it to rises in violent crime in cities around the world over the last century.

Tetraethyl lead fuel additives were phased out in the US and Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s.

In 1999, the UK became one of the last developed nations to ban tetraethyl, but the country still plays host to a company that manufactures it and sells it to poorer countries where its use has not yet been banned.

"What's extraordinary is that there's only a handful of countries left that haven't yet banned this chemical," said Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns at Friends of the Earth, one of the groups leading calls for exports of the additive to be stopped.

"They include Afghanistan, Yemen, Burma, North Korea and a few others. These are not exactly the kind of countries where we want to be taking risks about chemicals where there's a proven link to violence and it's deeply irresponsible of this company to then be trying to make money out of selling this chemical.

"It's about time governments moved in to try to stop this irresponsible corporate behaviour."

Innospec had promised to stop the production and sales of tetraethyl by the end of 2012, but has now set a new deadline for the end of this year.

Two years ago, the company was fined $40.2m (£26.3m) after admitting it had paid bribes to Iraqi and Indonesian officials to secure lucrative contracts to sell the chemical.

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