EPA commits to regulating lead in aviation gasoline


Most lead air pollution in the country comes from piston-engine aircrafts


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it will take the necessary steps to regulate lead pollution from aircrafts, the largest source of lead emissions in the country. EPA said it will propose an endangerment finding on leaded aviation gasoline by the end of 2022 and finalize the endangerment finding in 2023. The endangerment finding is a necessary first step before EPA, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), can regulate lead in aviation gasoline. 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.

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 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.

“Lead causes adult mortality and irreversible damage to children, and it is high time that EPA regulate the country’s largest source of airborne lead emissions,” said Jonathan J. Smith, Earthjustice attorney. “Every day of delay means more people, including hundreds of thousands of children, are harmed by lead. We urge the FAA to support communities, counties, and EPA, in this much needed process.”

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 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.

In 2006 Friends of the Earth petitioned EPA to initiate an endangerment finding for leaded aviation gasoline 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 did not happen. Today, EPA committed to making this endangerment finding by 2023.

Lead is widely known to be toxic, particularly to children, as it causes neurodevelopmental damage.

Quotes from our Clients and Partners:

“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. “We applaud Biden’s EPA for approving this petition and encourage the FAA to help us reach a ban on lead in aviation fuel. Preventing lead exposure is an urgent priority and environmental justice obligation that must be promptly addressed.”

“Regulating leaded aircraft gasoline is a necessity to protect children’s health and address ongoing environmental injustices,” said& Dr. Jimena Diaz Leiva, science director of Center for Environmental Health, based in Oakland, California. “We commend Biden’s EPA for responding to this petition and urge FAA to support us in this effort.”

“An endangerment finding for leaded avgas was a long time coming,” said Sandra Stahl, executive director, Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, an organization from San Diego, California. “We look forward to the FAA and EPA ending the largest remaining source of lead air emissions in the United States.”

“For too long the government let the largest source of lead in the air continue unregulated,” said Miki Barnes, Oregon Aviation Watch. “We applaud Biden’s EPA for taking action on leaded avgas and hope FAA helps this effort.”

“This is welcome news for the health of airport workers, pilots, passengers, and children who live around airports,” said Marcie Keever, program director for Friends of the Earth. “EPA has repeatedly concluded that lead is extremely toxic to humans and wildlife even at low doses. Communities have waited long enough for this announcement.”

“The County of Santa Clara is encouraged by the steps that the EPA is taking,” said James Williams, County of Santa Clara County Counsel. “We have seen the severe impacts that leaded aviation fuel has in communities of color around Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County. We are taking immediate local action to respond to those impacts, but it is critical that we also have a long-term national strategy. We are thrilled that the EPA is taking strong action and hope that it results in a long-overdue ban of leaded aviation fuel nationwide.”

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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