Lead in the Air You Breathe

Lead was banned twenty years ago in automotive gasoline, yet continues to pollute our air.

Currently, aviation fuel is the largest source of lead emissions in the U.S. and will continue to be for the next four years. In June 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the planned phase out of Avgas, leaded gasoline in aviation use for private aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says there are approximately 167,000 aircraft in the U.S. and a total of 230,000 worldwide that rely on the current 100 octane, low lead fuel for safe operation.

In 2011, a Duke University study found that kids living within 500 meters of an airport, where leaded Avgas is used, have elevated blood lead levels. The EPA estimates 16 million Americans live close to one of 22,000 airports where leaded Avgas is routinely used-and three million children go to school near these airports. And as Kevin Drum wrote in his Mother Jones piece, even low blood lead levels have bad health and social consequences.

The FAA has asked fuel producers to offer options that would safely allow general aviation aircraft stop using leaded fuel by 2018.

However, according to Kent Misegades, director of the Aviation Fuel Club, there is already a lead-free alternative called Mogas–which can be used in 80% of exisiting piston engine aircraft and has been available since 1982. The remaining 20% of planes can run on Mogas with a modification called Inpulse.

So why the delayed phase out?

Without regulatory pressure, there just isn’t enough incentive to change. Flyunleaded.com publishes a list of airports that supply mogas—a list that includes only 3 percent of all airports in the United States, according to Misegades.

A few environmental groups have taken legal action to speed up Avgas’ phaseout. In 2011, the Center for Environmental Health sued several avgas suppliers under California’s Proposition 65, which requires businesses to disclose chemicals that can cause cancer or other health problems. “[The aviation industry] realizes the writing is on the wall,” says CEH spokesperson Charles Margulis. “It’s a matter of time.” After petitioning the EPA to study and regulate aircraft lead emissions in 2006, Friends of the Earth also sued the EPA in 2012 for failing to adequately respond to that petition. A few months later, the FAA announced it would work with the EPA to take concrete steps toward implementing unleaded alternatives.

Banning leaded Avgas in aviation use will be a huge step to cleaning our air, protecting our children, and our health. It’s just too bad they expect us to wait four more years. The health effects of lead in automobile gas were known as early as the 1920s, but it took half a century before the EPA eliminated it. Unfortunately, the tetraethyl lead in Avgas has flown under the radar for decades and is still poisoning the air we all breathe.

Want to make a difference? Do something about it–HELP GET THE LEAD OUT! Here are some suggested actions you can take at a local level:

1. Sign a petition.

2. Contact local airports and demand they offer Mogas or another unleaded option.

3. Join the Aviation Fuel Club.

4. Join a local environmental group (or start one) and work together to make a difference.

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