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U.S. Needs to Get the Lead Out of Aviation Fuel

A small private plane tied down next to the runway at a regional airport.

Leaded gas used in small airplanes (commonly referred to as “avgas”) is the single largest source of lead emissions in the country.

Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock

Case Overview

While lead was phased out of automobile gasoline more than 15 years ago, it persists as a constituent of aviation fuel, or avgas, used by general aviation airplanes. Aviation is the single largest source of lead emissions in the U.S. and poses a significant threat to public health—especially in communities located near airports.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates, sixteen million people reside, and three million children attend school, in close proximity to the 22,000 airports where leaded avgas may be used. There is no “safe” threshold for lead exposure. In fact, a study out of Duke University in July 2011 found that children living within a kilometer of an airport where avgas is used have significantly elevated blood lead levels. And children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead.

Earthjustice’s client, Friends of the Earth, petitioned EPA in 2006 to make a finding that lead emissions from aircraft using avgas may endanger public health or welfare. Since then EPA has taken no final action on the petition. So Earthjustice filed suit in March 2012 to get EPA to address this pollution problem.

The health of airport workers, pilots, passengers, and surrounding communities from continued exposure to leaded aviation gasoline hangs in the balance.

Case Updates

April 21, 2014 | Legal Document

Petition for Reconsideration

Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Oregon Aviation Watch, represented by Earthjustice, asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to address harms caused by lead emissions generated by the continued use of leaded aviation gasoline (avgas).

June 25, 2013 | In the News: San Diego Union-Tribune

EPA Reports High Lead Levels at Small Airports

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the results of lead monitoring conducted at 17 general aviation airports around the country. EPA’s findings from the 17 airports indicate that two airports in California, McClellan-Palomar Airport in San Diego County and San Carlos Airport in San Mateo County, exceed the legal limit for lead in the air and air quality standards set by EPA for lead and may endanger public health. Lead, a component in the aviation fuel of light aircraft, is a suspected carcinogen and a cause of behavioral and learning disabilities in children.