Groups Ask EPA to Regulate Lead Pollution Around Nation’s Airports

Most airborne lead in the U.S. comes from aircraft, yet EPA refuses to regulate toxic additive


Erin Fitzgerald,

Today, community groups from across the country represented by Earthjustice, together with the county of Santa Clara in California, filed a petition calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take the necessary steps to regulate lead pollution from aircraft, the largest source of lead emissions in the country. The petition comes as 39 organizations and individuals signed a letter calling on EPA to look into the issue.

Though the use of leaded gasoline in most motor vehicles was banned 25 years ago, leaded aviation fuel is still used in nearly 170,000 piston-engine aircraft across 20,000 airports. EPA has failed to regulate this significant source of lead exposure, even though emissions from these aircraft account for about 70% of lead released into the atmosphere. According to an Earthjustice review of lead pollution data, while these airports are all over the country, airports with the highest lead emissions are located in a handful of states, including California, Florida, Arizona, Washington, and Colorado.

“Lead is widely known to be toxic, particularly to children, yet EPA is neglecting the largest remaining source of lead emissions,” said Kelly Lester, Earthjustice attorney. “EPA must start the process of regulating leaded aviation gas now if it takes seriously its commitments to public health and environmental justice.”

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. Most general aviation airports with the highest lead emissions are located in communities of color. On August 3, 2021, the County released a peer-reviewed study showing that leaded aviation gasoline increased blood lead levels among thousands of children living nearby a local 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.

“It is unconscionable that EPA has failed to regulate the largest remaining source of lead emissions to the environment,” said the coalition of petitioners. “Regulating leaded aircraft gasoline is an important step in fulfilling the Biden-Harris administration’s commitments to protect children’s health and promote environmental justice.”

In 2006 Friends of the Earth petitioned the EPA to initiate an endangerment finding for leaded avgas and begin regulating this source of harmful lead emissions. In 2012 the agency said it planned to issue an endangerment finding in 2015, but that plan has not happened.

Quotes from our Clients:

“Alaska has 400 public airports, many in close proximity to Alaska Native communities and in diverse urban communities where children and other residents may be exposed to dangerous levels of lead,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “Preventing lead exposure from leaded aviation gas and implementing safe alternatives must be an urgent priority and environmental justice obligation for the Biden-Harris administration that can no longer be ignored.”

“Many of the airports with the highest general aviation lead emissions in the United States are located in communities of color,” said Michael Green, chief executive officer of Center for Environmental Health. “Exposure to airborne lead from leaded aviation gasoline is an issue of environmental justice because it disproportionately affects children of color, who often bear an uneven burden of multiple chemical exposures. We join these partner organizations in demanding the EPA acts to stop these lead emissions for the health of our communities.”

“EPA has repeatedly concluded that lead is extremely toxic to humans, wildlife, and the environment and causes health problems, even at low doses,” said Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “The health of airport workers, pilots, passengers, and surrounding communities — especially children — from continued exposure to leaded aviation gasoline hangs in the balance.”

“The EPA must take action to protect children and the most vulnerable communities. Based on the science the only sensible thing for the agency is to make an endangerment finding for leaded avgas, and start the process to end the largest remaining source of lead air emissions in the United States,” said Sandra Stahl, executive director, Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition.

“For too long the government has done nothing to stop the largest source of lead in the air. We urge Biden’s EPA to take notice, and take action,” said Miki Barnes, Oregon Aviation Watch.

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

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