Lead still found in gasoline? The answer for small airplanes is, surprisingly, yes.

Here’s a fact that surprises even most environmentalists and public health advocates: Small aircraft in the US still use leaded gasoline.

It was certainly a surprise to me.  In the last few years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time working on reducing lead air pollution.  NRDC was very involved in the rulemakings both updating the standards for lead in air for the first time in 30 years and setting standards for monitoring for lead in air (on which, incidentally, we recently had a gratifying victory).  So, I knew that lead was still emitted in the US by numerous industrial facilities.  Like most people, I thought we had eliminated lead from gasoline.  But aviation fuel is separately regulated and continues to be used in small aircraft.

Burning this fuel, avgas, as it is known, is responsible for approximately 50% of the lead air pollution in the US, and the EPA estimates that about 16 million people live near the approximately 20,000 airports where leaded avgas is used and where the pollution is the most dangerous.  About 3 million children attend school near these airports.  These mapping tools on NRDC’s web-site show the facilities that emit lead, including airports where leaded avgas is used.  

Lead is a nasty toxin, with serious effects on human health.  It is known to cause brain, kidney and cardiovascular damage.  In children, even small amounts of lead have been proven to lower IQ levels.  There is no known safe level of lead in the body.  And children are especially vulnerable to its effects.   Once lead is emitted into the air, it eventually comes back down and settles in the soil and on other surfaces where people can be exposed to it.  People can then track the lead into their homes or children can inadvertently put the lead into their mouths when they play outdoors.  What makes lead especially problematic is that it doesn’t break down into a safe form, and can remain in the soil indefinitely so that deposition of even small amounts can accumulate to dangerous levels over time. 

In public health circles, my scientist colleagues tell me, the removal of lead from motor vehicle gasoline is considered one of the major public health advances of the latter half of the 20th century and greatly reduced the frequency of lead poisoning in the United States.

Check out this graph showing a striking correlation between reductions in the use of lead in motor vehicle gasoline and reductions in lead in people’s bodies.

 Needleman_2004_Lead poisoning history.bmp Source: Needleman, H. 2004. Lead Poisoning. Annu. Rev. Med. 55:209–22

The good news is that EPA is looking closely at this issue in response to a petition by the Friends of the Earth and has initiated a rulemaking about the risks to human health posed by lead in avgas.  The EPA’s attention to the issue is a welcome development, and we look forward to working with the agency to get the lead out.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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