Victory: Proposal marks first official step to regulating leaded aviation fuel, the top cause of lead in the air in the country

Alejandro Dávila Fragoso,

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed an endangerment finding on leaded aviation gasoline, a critical step to regulate lead pollution from piston-engine aircrafts, the largest source of lead emissions in the country. The endangerment finding on leaded aviation gasoline, or avgas, is the first step in EPA’s process to adopt rules restricting use of avgas.

EPA’s actions stem from a petition that community groups represented by Earthjustice, together with the County of Santa Clara, California, and the Town of Middleton, Wisconsin, filed in 2020.

“We’ve known for decades that lead exposure is responsible for the death of nearly half a million adults annually from cardiovascular disease — and causes irreversible damage to children. EPA must finalize its endangerment finding as soon as possible, and work with the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly phase out leaded avgas,” said Eve Gartner, Earthjustice managing attorney. “Banning leaded avgas cannot wait. Every day that goes by without a ban means communities across the country, including hundreds of thousands of children, are breathing lead causing lifelong harm.”

Leaded gasoline in most motor vehicles was banned 25 years ago, but avgas is still used in nearly 170,000 piston-engine aircraft across 20,000 airports. EPA estimates that emissions from these airplanes account for about 70% of lead released into the atmosphere. According to an Earthjustice review of lead pollution data, airports with the highest lead emissions are located in a handful of states, including California, Florida, Arizona, Washington, and Colorado.

Over 5 million people, including more than 360,000 children under the age of 5, live near at least one of the airports where piston-engine aircraft operate, according to EPA. Multiple studies have shown that children who live near airports have higher levels of lead in their blood, and most general aviation airports with the highest lead emissions are in communities of color. In August, a peer-reviewed study showed that leaded aviation gasoline increased blood lead levels among thousands of children living nearby a Santa Clara general aviation airport. Children living downwind of the airport had blood lead level increases on par with those detected during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis.

This is not the first petition groups have filed on this issue. In 2006 Friends of the Earth petitioned EPA to initiate an endangerment finding for avgas. In 2012 the agency said it would do so in 2015, but that did not happen. Today, EPA said it will finish the endangerment finding in 2023.

In this petition, Earthjustice is representing Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Center for Environmental Health, Friends of the Earth, Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, and Oregon Aviation Watch. Santa Clara County, in California, represented by its Office of the County Counsel, is also part of the petition.

Quotes from our clients and partners

“Gratitude to the Biden administration and the EPA for issuing the proposed endangerment finding,” said Miki Barnes of Oregon Aviation Watch. “This decision is a significant step forward in efforts to protect vulnerable communities from the environmental damage and devastating harms caused by aviation lead emissions.”

“Leaded aviation fuel is the largest source of leadairemissions in the United States. We know that hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. live, play, and attend school near general aviation airports, where they are breathing in lead from general aviation traffic. The EPA’s endangerment finding has been a long-awaited step towards permanently phasing out leaded aviation fuel.For too long communities of color living closest to theseairfieldshave been suffering the effects of lead exposure,andwe are proud tostand byso many community advocates and advocacy organizations who have fought tirelessly for thisfinding,”  saidJimena Díaz LeivaScience Director at the Center for Environmental Health.

Read the full press release here.