SEVERAL nations in Africa are finally beginning to phase out leaded fuel. That may hurt their economies in the short run. But Africa - so ravaged by civil war, famine, disease, and a plethora of other ills - must do this for itself.
It may surprise some Americans that Africa still uses leaded fuel at all. Not much of the rest of the world does any more. The United States began phasing out leaded gasoline in 1970. By 1995, when it became illegal in this country to use it, lead levels in the air had dropped by an impressive 98 percent.
Exposure to leaded fuel increases the risks of heart attacks and strokes in adults, and it decreases children's brain functions. Fortunately, the message about the risks of leaded fuel is beginning to hit home on a continent where they have been little regarded for too long.
Clearly, the stuff is bad, and many African nations are starting to outlaw it. Ethiopia has stopped using it, and it won't be available in South Africa starting in 2006. West Africa countries will cease distributing it next year.
Hopefully, there is no turning back. Yet making the continent lead-free will not be easy. In Kenya, both leaded and unleaded fuel are available, and government officials are combatting the public misconception that older cars require leaded fuel.
Costs pose a problem for some nations. Only leaded fuel can be processed at Kenya's refinery, and it would take $161 million to convert it. To store imported fuel there would cost $88 million.
Failing either option, officials may have to shut the refinery down.
So switching to unleaded fuel won't be a cinch for every African nation. Jobs will be lost at the Kenyan refinery, but in the long run, as all nations cut back on leaded fuel and finally stop using it, Africans' health and the air they breathe will improve. For a continent with so many problems, overcoming this one should truly be a source of pride.