Dirty Diesel: Dirty business with toxic fuels

© Fabian Biasio
Public Eye’s Dirty Diesel report, published in 2016, reveals that Swiss commodities companies knowingly exploit lax African standards: they supply and sell highly sulphurous fuels in Africa – fuels that they produce themselves and that have long been banned in Europe. In doing so, companies significantly exacerbate the problem of increasing air pollution in African cities and endanger the health of millions of people.

After three years of research, Public Eye sheds light on a global business model previously only known to insiders. Our report Dirty Diesel reveals for the first time how commodity trading companies systematically exploit the lax African standards to optimise their profit margins with toxic fuels – at the expense of the health of millions of Africans. They exploit countries’ weak standards, producing and supplying fuels whose sale would never be permitted in Switzerland. In doing so, they become partly responsible for the premature deaths of thousands of people. Though technically legal, their schemes are illegitimate.

Air pollution in Africa – a ticking time bomb

Air pollution is already a serious problem in African cities. Car exhaust fumes are largely responsible for the harmful particulate matter in the air. Although there are fewer cars on the roads in Africa than in Europe, the emissions are higher because fuel contains far higher levels of sulphur, which leads to higher levels of particulate matter.

© Carl De Keyzer/Magnum

Catastrophic consequences for the population

The high level of air pollution severely impacts the health of people affected. Respiratory diseases are among the main reasons for hospital admissions among people in Accra or Lagos. If the high levels of sulphur in fuels are not reduced, the high sulphur content of fuel will have led an estimated 31,000 people to die prematurely by 2030. That is three times the number of deaths related to air pollution caused by air pollution in Europe, the United States and Japan combined. In addition, countless people will suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Sulphur content nearly 400 times higher than levels permitted in Europe

Fuel standards in most of Africa are far lower than in Europe. Public Eye investigated the true sulphur content of diesel sold in eight countries. The shocking result: the sulphur content was up to 378 times higher than levels permitted in Europe. We found other harmful substances present at levels banned in Europe – for instance benzene or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Sulphur content of analyzed diesel samples
Sulphur content of analyzed diesel samples

Swiss commodities traders lead the dirty diesel business

Swiss commodities trading companies – above all Trafigura – dominate the dirty business of filthy fuel in Africa. The company supplies the fuel, sells it via its own networks of petrol stations and also produces the toxic blend itself. It has no interest in seeing standards change given that it systematically takes advantages of weak African standards to optimise its profit margins.

© Public Eye
The chart shows the African countries in which Swiss traders are active.