Giving up the lead ghost

by Michaela Stith, oceans & vessels intern

When the Environmental Protection Agency completed its phaseout of leaded gasoline in 1996, the agency congratulated itself as having accomplished “one of the great environmental achievements of all time.” Blood lead levels dropped by 70 percent after lead was taken off the highways, so the myth that lead was dead easily proliferated across the country.

But the Flint water crisis reminded us that lead still haunts us today, and communities of color are often disproportionately affected. Lead lives in the walls of old homes, in water, in toys and in food. Contrary to the EPA’s eulogy, lead also continues to live in fuel in 20,000 airports across the United States.

Small piston engine aircraft. Photo credit: Bhautik Joshi [CC BY 2.0].
General aviation fuel — or “avgas”, used in small piston engine aircraft — is the largest source of airborne lead pollution in the U.S., having emitted 34,000 tons of lead into the atmosphere between 1970 and 2007.

General aviation fuel — or “avgas”, used in small piston engine aircraft — is the largest source of airborne lead pollution in the U.S., having emitted 34,000 tons of lead into the atmosphere between 1970 and 2007. Scholars from Duke University found that blood lead levels are demonstrably higher in children living within 1 kilometer (about 0.5 miles) of an airport, and the EPA reports that 3 million American children attend school within that radius.

Lead exposure has well-known consequences of lowering IQ, impairing academic performance, delaying puberty and reducing fertility, and decreasing cardiovascular, nerve and kidney function. There is no safe level of lead — until we stop its industrial use, lead will continue to poison our children. Therefore, the U.S. must expedite the availability of unleaded avgas to airports.

Unfortunately, the transition to unleaded fuel has been an unnecessarily difficult process. The most widely used avgas is called 100LL, designed with “low lead” levels and a high-performance 100-octane rating. The octane rating expresses the amount of compression fuel can experience before it combusts; a larger rating (100+) indicates higher performance and is designed for high performance planes, while fuel with a lower rating (80–90) is designed for lower-performance planes. Only 25 percent of general aviation aircraft actually require 100-octane fuel, and Swift Fuels is currently testing its UL102 (unleaded, 102 octane rating) avgas with the Federal Aviation Administration to provide unleaded fuel for those high performance planes. However, the existence of unleaded fuel has not historically translated into its use.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved mogas — 91-octane unleaded and ethanol-free motor vehicle gasoline — as aviation fuel in the 1980s. Though the majority still use 100LL avgas, 75 percent of all general aviation planes could switch over to mogas today just by obtaining a permit, without making modifications to their planes. These planes, which require low octane fuel of 80/87 octane ratings, would actually save money by using mogas because it is optimized for lower performance planes. Mogas is $1 to $3 cheaper per gallon than 100LL and is more fuel efficient (specifically, UL91 mogas provides 3 to 5 percent more BTUs per gallon than 100LL).

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

What keeps the general aviation community from giving up the lead ghost?

In short, powerful regulatory agencies are not being sufficiently proactive in transitioning away from leaded avgas. Of about 20,000 U.S. airports, only 126 airports sell mogas. Mogas is sold at about 11,000 gas stations in the U.S. and Canada, but these outlets are obviously inconvenient for planes.

Fortunately, there has been a substantial grassroots movement in the general aviation community to increase public education about unleaded fuel and share knowledge about the availability of mogas, resulting in websites like Fly Unleaded and pure-gas.org. Yet while the general aviation community has encouraged airports to carry unleaded fuel, there is low confidence that the FAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association are doing enough to get the lead out.

The FAA and the EPA have the most power in outlawing lead from aviation fuel. Still, the EPA has so far failed to declare lead in avgas a danger to human health. Meanwhile the FAA says it “shares the EPA’s concerns” about leaded avgas, and has consequently dragged its feet in pushing unleaded fuel to the market. These government agencies know the danger lead presents to our children but in many cases lack the political will to push for a transition to unleaded avgas.

Next month, Friends of the Earth will release a report elucidating the myths and realities of leaded aviation fuel and urge our members to take action.

Friends of the Earth has advocated that the EPA take the lead out of avgas for 13 years, starting with our comments in 2003 on commercial aircraft air pollution standards. We continue to fight: next month we will release a report elucidating the myths and realities of leaded aviation fuel and urge our members to take action. Until then, we leave you with five ways to put leaded avgas to rest:

  1. The EPA should make an endangerment finding for lead in avgas as soon as possible in order to create urgency in phasing out leaded avgas.
  2. The Federal Aviation Administration has created a test program for unleaded aviation fuel, but should meet the deadlines set for its test program in order to fast-track unleaded fuel’s public availability.
  3. Airports should work to phase out avgas by bringing in unleaded fuel and partnering with unleaded fuel suppliers.
  4. The FAA and EPA should collaborate with the community to make unleaded options affordable and accessible.
  5. Finally, the EPA should evaluate the current extent of lead contamination near airports through a program that either finances or requires lead air emission monitoring and soil testing at airports where leaded avgas is being used.
Learn more about avgas here.
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