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October 7, 2022

EPA proposes “endangerment finding” of leaded aviation gasoline

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

Contacts

Alejandro Dávila Fragoso, adavila@earthjustice.org  

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 lead air emissions 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 these airfields have been suffering the effects of lead exposure, and we are proud to stand by so many community advocates and advocacy organizations who have fought tirelessly for this finding,” said Jimena Díaz Leiva, Science Director at the Center for Environmental Health.

“We’re pleased that the EPA has finally acknowledged what’s been true for decades: there is no safe level of lead for the communities burdened by general aviation pollution,” said Marcie Keever, Oceans and Vessels Program director at Friends of the Earth. “If finalized, this decision would bring long overdue relief to the communities suffering from this unjust public health threat. EPA must move swiftly to finalize this decision and, once and for all, get the lead out of avgas.”

“As a co-petitioner on the Earthjustice petition, we are delighted that this important public health issue is finally getting the regulatory attention it deserves,” said Cynthia Richson, town board chair of Middleton, Wisconsin. “We are encouraged that this proposed finding will result in an EPA 2023 Lead Endangerment Finding, so that lead in aviation gas will be eliminated for the benefit of the public, and especially for the protection of children.”

“In communities like East San José, leaded aviation fuel has contributed to unacceptably high levels of lead in children’s blood,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams. “This is an important first step towards regulating toxic lead, and we strongly urge the EPA to move forward with the urgency that this public health crisis demands.”

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