Small aircraft shouldn’t be allowed to keep spewing toxic lead into communities

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Lead was phased out of gasoline sold for cars and trucks decades ago. But that brain-damaging fuel additive used to prevent engine knock is still being spewed into the air across the nation — including Southern California — by small aircraft that use leaded fuel.

For two decades, community groups and environmentalists have been pushing federal regulators to ban leaded aviation fuel that is used by about 170,000 small piston-engine planes, single and twin-engine planes that typically carry between two and 10 passengers. Aviation gasoline, or avgas, is the only transportation fuel that still uses lead and is the nation’s largest single source of airborne lead emissions, responsible for about 70% of the total.

After years of inaction, federal regulators are now finally poised to start eliminating this dangerous pollutant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week issued an important finding that aircraft that use leaded fuel “cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” This action now obligates the EPA to adopt emissions standards while the Federal Aviation Administration develops standards for aircraft fuel.

This is very good news, though it should have happened long ago given mounting evidence of elevated blood lead levels of people who live in communities near general aviation airports. There is no safe level of exposure for this powerful neurotoxin. Lead contamination poses the greatest risks to young children, who can suffer irreversible behavioral, cognitive and developmental problems, including loss of IQ, from even small amounts of lead, which is emitted in tiny particles in aircraft exhaust and can also be deposited in the soil.

The Federal Aviation Administration last year started working with the aviation industry toward a goal of ending the use of leaded fuel by 2030, but adopting regulations and standards will turn what’s currently an aspiration into a true obligation. Federal officials don’t yet have a timeline for how soon they expect to propose emissions rules, but it’s important that they work to phase out leaded fuel quickly.

More than 5 million Americans live within 500 meters, or about 1,600 feet, of an airport, according to a 2020 EPA analysis, and studies have found higher blood lead levels among children who live or go to school near airports.

Aircraft pollution is especially bad in California, which has some of the airports with the nation’s highest reported lead emissions. Long Beach Airport ranks No. 2 in lead pollution, and Van Nuys Airport is No. 7, according to an analysis of EPA data by the group Earthjustice. John Wayne Airport, Chino Airport, Riverside Municipal Airport and Torrance Municipal Airport-Zamperini Field are also high up on the list.

This is also a matter of environmental justice. Communities near airports tend to have higher proportions of people of color and low-income residents than areas that are more distant. Many of these communities are among those with the highest lead pollution.

Fortunately, technology is no longer much of a barrier. The FAA has already approved safer, unleaded fuels for piston-engine aircraft. And while about 35 airports nationwide already provide unleaded fuel, much more needs to happen to scale up production and distribution and make higher-octane alternatives widely available.

There are aviation industry concerns about how to safely phase out lead. The average piston-engine aircraft still flying is more than 45 years old, and federal rules should address those safety concerns in addition to protecting public health from poisonous emissions.

Fortunately, technology is no longer much of a barrier. The FAA has already approved safer, unleaded fuels for piston-engine aircraft. And while about 35 airports nationwide already provide unleaded fuel, much more needs to happen to scale up production and distribution and make higher-octane alternatives widely available.

There are aviation industry concerns about how to safely phase out lead. The average piston-engine aircraft still flying is more than 45 years old, and federal rules should address those safety concerns in addition to protecting public health from poisonous emissions.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various author’s articles on this Opinion piece or elsewhere online or in the newspaper where we have articles with the header “COLUMN/EDITORIAL & OPINION” do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints or official policies of the Publisher, Editor, Reporters or anybody else in the Staff of the Hemet and San Jacinto Chronicle Newspaper.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Not unlike many articles from this source. Poorly researched, lacking in specifics and sensationalist. The amount of lead “spewed” by piston aircraft is less than 0.03% of what automobile traffic emitted in past years. Testing to determine the amount of lead from aircraft is skewed because lead is a persistent pollutant that remains where it was deposited for decades. The Aviation industry has been pursuing the removal of tetraethyl lead from avgas for years. As in all things related to aviation the worst roadblock to the solution is the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA can’t shake the culture of ‘Not on my watch because any failure would be fatal for their career.

  2. The other thing small planes “spew” into the area is MONEY. Aviation is a terrific profession, a great activity for kids and a wonderful hobby. Pilots and crews who work on them are some of the most responsible people you will very meet. Try spending some time at a place like the Pacific Coast Air Museum and get the FACTS!

  3. I think you should find something positive to say. Like an alternitive solution for this problem. So we can still fly these much needed small planes. THESE small planes save alot lives every day. Not to mention all of the other tasks needed! Why dont you find something else to complane about. Like the way our country is being ran right into the ground!

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