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QUESTION: Why is Ecuador so polluted? 02/07/11  Ohio, USA - United States of America

We recently toured Ecuador and was astounded at the pollution! We did not see any factories spewing pollution so we wondered why? Our tour guide suggested the leaded gas used in automobiles.

The friends and family we were visiting were unaware of Ecuador using leaded gas.

Can you tell me if Ecuador is still using leaded gas. And if not, why is this country so polluted? Is it all the diesel fuel in the buses?

Thank you,

Cristine Hoffman.

ANSWER: Jul  3 2011  Is it all the diesel fuel in the buses?

Dear Cristine,

According to the United Nations website and specifically Ecuador has phased out leaded gasoline. Our own website points out that Ecuador phased out leaded gasoline even before Australia did, and certainly prior to September 2000. [Ref: ]

As you suspected though, according to the diesel sulphur level allowed is between 500 and a massive 7000 parts per million (ppm) and the gasoline sulphur maximum is 2000 ppm: "500 ppm fuel available in Quito and Cuenca. Plans for national reduction to 500 ppm in 2009. USD 1 billion investment required to reach 50 ppm diesel and petrol. 3 refineries. Member of OPEC." [Reference: Fundamentals for Decreasing Sulphur in Fuels in LAC: Approach Systems. Refining Challenges. José Félix García –Executive Secretary of ARPEL Conference on Sulphur in Fuels in South America Quito, Ecuador –February 13 -14, 2007

At the last meeting of the PCFV that I attended, it was noted with concern, that many countries still do not even require NEW cars to be sold with a catalytic converter on them, (let alone require old cars to be retrofitted with one) despite the country having phased out leaded gasoline. The cessation of use of leaded gasoline is what makes it possible to use a catalytic converter and catalytic converters are responsible for huge reductions in traffic emissions and smog in more highly regulated countries. Catalytic converters are poisoned by lead and thus the phasing out of leaded gasoline should always be followed by a requirement for each car to have a catalytic converter.

The phase-out of leaded gasoline will only be associated with reduced health hazards from traffic emissions IF the government regulates to make catalytic converters compulsory, to reduce sulphur in fuels, to reduce the market share of diesel (which results in the emission of not only heaps of deadly fine particulates but also two of the deadliest carcinogens known to man), ensure/require that engines are properly maintained, to improve public transport, walking and cycling facilities/safety, thus reducing private transport vehicle miles travelled.

I also found online the following, which was written in 1995, when leaded gasoline was still sold in Ecuador:

"Since the increase in automobile, bus, and truck numbers has coincided with a decline in the quality of Quito's air, it is widely believed that vehicular exhausts are the principle cause of pollution in the city.  The findings of the 1993 assessment (Table 2), in which WHO guidelines were followed, suggest that this view is only partially correct.  Cars emit virtually all the carbon monoxide, which in terms of tons per year is by far the largest component of total emissions.  Also, they account for all the lead and most of the uncombusted hydrocarbons emitted.  However, factories and other fixed sources discharge most of the TSP and sulfur dioxide and nearly half the nitrous oxide.  Jurado (1991) has estimated that 44 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 40 percent of the nitrous oxide emitted in Quito come from textile and leather- working factories and that the food and beverage industry discharges 37 percent of total sulfur dioxide and 35 percent of total nitrous oxide." [Ref: "AN ASSESSMENT OF URBAN ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN ECUADOR"  by Douglas Southgate, Kenneth Frederick, John Strasma, Allen White, Lori Lach, John Kellenberg and Patricia Kelly, published by the Environmental and Natural Resources Policy and Training Project June 1995 ] also Air Pollution by Douglas Southgate, and Lori Lach, published by the Environmental and Natural Resources Policy and Training Project 8/6/1999

Perhaps your tour guide was aware that "Countries such as Ecuador were still producing paints with alarmingly high levels of lead (averaging 31,960 ppm)." [Ref: Lead Legislation: The World’s Best and Worst Practice Regulating Lead in Paint  By Rebecca Bodel, University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Intern ] and that lead poisoning levels are high in t his country.

For instance, a blood lead study in an Andean Ecuadorian village with lots of ceramic kilns found: "Venous blood samples from 166 schoolchildren (ages 4 months to 15 years) in the study area... showed mean blood lead levels of 40.0 microg/dl." [Ref: Int J Occup Environ Health. 2000 Jul-Sep;6(3):169-76. Environmental lead contamination and pediatric lead intoxication in an Andean Ecuadorian village. Counter SA, Buchanan LH, Ortega F, Amarasiriwardena C, Hu H. ] At approximately the same era in the US, young children were found to have an average blood lead level of around 2  µg/dL [Ref: see the NHANES series of blood lead studies at Trends in Blood Lead Levels and Blood Lead Testing Among US Children Aged 1 to 5 Years, 1988–2004, Robert L. Jones, PhD, David M. Homa, PhD, MPH, Pamela A. Meyer, PhD, Debra J. Brody, MPH, Kathleen L. Caldwell, PhD, James L. Pirkle, MD, PhD, Mary Jean Brown, ScD, RN. Pediatrics Vol. 123 No. 3 March 1, 2009 pp. e376 -e385 ]. The tour guide may not have been aware that leaded gasoline was phased out. Many countries do not have regulations requiring that gasoline bowsers be labelled as to whether they contain leaded or unleaded fuel so the general population can be unaware of changes. It would be a reasonable assumption, if you were unaware that leaded gasoline was phased out, to think that leaded gasoline was the major cause of high blood lead levels - it is. Unfortunately there are also OTHER causes of high blood lead levels which receive much less attention from the World Bank (which worked on leaded gasoline phaseouts in the 1990s), the United Nations Environment Programme (which has tried since 2002 to end leaded gasoline globally), the World Health Organisation (which has only recently started working on phasing out lead in paint globally) and the International Lead Management Center (I can't work out what ILMC focuses on).

It is always a good idea, before you go travelling to a country with worse pollution than at home, to have a blood lead test before and after the trip. Then you at least know how much lead exposure the trip caused, and lead is a pretty good indicator of industrial pollution in general (as well as showing up lead from other sources such as paint renovation, ceramic glazes, water, food, etc), so you get an idea of your overall exposure to pollutants.

All the best with your future travels

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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