Clearing the Skies: A Call to End the Silent Threat of Leaded Aviation Fuel

When you think about sources of toxic lead exposure, you might recall the bans on leaded fuel for cars 27 years ago or leaded paint 18 years before that. Or perhaps you think of the 2014 lead-in-water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan. Current data show, however, that a stunningly high source of lead pollution in the United States comes from leaded aviation fuel.

Today, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is taking the next step in fighting for communities’ right to a clean environment by sending letters to four distributors of aviation gas who are obligated to distribute aviation gas with the lowest lead concentration available to them in California, as mandated by our 2014 legal agreement. 

This agreement not only required airport operators to disseminate warnings to residential and business areas within 1 kilometer of 23 California airports, where hundreds of thousands of children live, play, and attend school, but also placed a responsibility on operators and distributors to offer the lowest lead fuel option available to them in the state. The FAA has approved an unleaded aviation gas which can be available to these four distributors for sale and distribution in California by early 2024.

The reality is that leaded aviation fuel, also known as avgas, continues to power nearly 170,000 piston-engine aircraft in 20,000 airports across the nation. According to the U.S. EPA, these small planes cause approximately 70% of all airborne lead emissions.

Even more disturbing: it’s not a low dose of lead exposure. A 2021 study showed that living downwind of Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara, CA, which bears heavy small plane traffic, was associated with childhood blood lead level increases comparable to those witnessed during the Flint, MI water crisis. During periods of peak traffic, children living within half a mile of Reid-Hillview had blood lead level increases nearly twice the amount that occurred during the Flint disaster.

Decades of research is clear: Lead is a neurotoxin, and no amount of it is safe. 

We know that low-income communities and people of color living closest to these airfields are bearing the burden of this toxic lead exposure. Pollution by aviation fuel is pervasive, extremely dangerous to public health and the economy, and fully preventable. 

While over a decade of collaborative efforts with community members and allied nonprofits has yielded progress, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to urge stakeholders to do more. Affected communities simply cannot afford the current slow rate of progress.

In a recent landmark development, the EPA issued a finalized endangerment finding about the harmful public health impacts of lead pollution from small airplanes.This triggers legal requirements for the EPA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to regulate and ultimately phase out this dangerous source of pollution. The EPA’s actions stem from a petition filed in 2020 by Friends of the Earth, CEH, and others represented by Earthjustice, together with the County of Santa Clara, California, and the Town of Middleton, Wisconsin.

The time is right to eliminate all leaded aviation gas. Lead-free fuel is now approved by the FAA, and  communities, airports, distributors, and airport operators, or FBOs, must work together to prioritize selling the safest unleaded fuel and incentivize it among pilots. 

We now know that exposure to leaded gasoline from car exhaust lowered the IQ of about half the population of the U.S., and the removal of lead from automobile gas between 1976 and 1995 resulted in a 90% reduction in mean blood lead level. Once we knew better, we did better. 

Aviation gas distributors must act and switch to unleaded fuel without delay for the health of pilots and other airport workers, people living and attending school close to airports, and future generations. 

Kizzy Charles-Guzman is CEO of CEH. Kaya Allan Sugerman is the director of the Illegal Toxic Threats program at CEH. Since 1996, CEH has spearheaded bold efforts to fight against companies that knowingly expose individuals, children, and entire communities to life-threatening toxic chemicals.