Leaded Airplane Fuel May Be Threat to Health of Children Living Near Airports, EPA Warns

Nearly 400,000 children in the U.S. live near airports and may be exposed to lead air pollution from small planes, the agency found

Hundreds of thousands of children throughout the U.S. who live near airports may be at risk of lead exposure, due to the continued use of leaded fuel in small aircraft, federal regulators warn.

In a new proposed action (PDF) issued on October 7, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that leaded airplane fuel endangers public health. If the “endangerment” finding is finalized in 2023, the EPA may issue new emission standards that could have a large impact on the nation’s aviation industry.

“In this action, the Administrator is proposing to find that lead air pollution may be reasonably anticipated to endanger the public health and welfare,” according to a Federal Register notice (PDF). “The Administrator is also proposing to find that engine emissions of lead from certain aircraft cause or contribute to the lead air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health under section 231(a) of the Clean Air Act.”

The proposed endangerment designation focuses largely on fuel regulations for small aircraft, which would give the EPA the regulatory power to address the largest source of lead contributions to air pollution in the country, according to the agency.

The primary source of leaded fuel emissions is from aircraft in the U.S.; primarily piston-powered engines which produce 70% of the total lead emitted in the nation. Leaded gas was banned for most uses decades ago, leading to a reduction of airborne lead by 99% since 1980. However, small aircraft that carry 2-10 passengers use fuel containing added lead. This increases octane and prevents problems with piston-powered aircraft engines.

Piston-powered planes are an important part of transportation in the U.S., especially in Alaska, which relies heavily on smaller aircraft for transportation across the state. Jet aircraft used for commercial transport do not operate on fuel containing lead.

EPA’s Leaded Fuel Investigation

The recent announces come after environmentalists petitioned the EPA to make an “endangerment finding” for leaded gas in aircraft 16 years ago. However, the EPA did not propose the finding until now.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA reviews information on air pollution and sources of air pollution to determine potential threats to human health. The agency investigated lead emissions from aircraft at US airports and evaluated concentrations of lead in the air and near airports to make the determination.

The EPA determination focused on the findings of two studies, one which indicated children living within proximity to airports had increased blood lead levels. Both studies highlighted implications on children’s health.

The review found that nearly 400,000 children in the U.S. under the age of five years old live within 500 meters of an airport runway, putting them at increased risk of lead exposure.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates the consumption of leaded airplane fuel is expected to total 185 million gallons in 2026 and 179 million gallons in 2041. The EPA’s proposed action comes in part because the FAA said said it has cleared the way for unleaded aviation fuel and is moving forward with an initiative to develop new fuels for piston-powered engines, or small aircraft.

Lead Exposure Risks

Exposure to lead during childhood can cause a wide range of serious health side effects. Research indicates childhood lead exposure reduces the brain’s structural integrity later in life, which can lead to reduced IQ scores and cognitive problems.

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Lead Poisoning Lawsuits

Children diagnosed with lead poisoning after exposure to peeling or chipping lead paint in a rental home may be entitled to financial compensation and benefits.

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Lead exposure, even at low levels, contributes to increased risk of early death, leading to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. More so, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns there is no safe level of lead exposure among children. Any exposure can lead to life-long health problems ranging from obesity to reduced cognition.

The proposed endangerment finding is open for public comment for 90 days. Comments may be submitted to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2022-0389 online, through Email or by regular mail. See the Federal Register Notice linked above for details.

The EPA will issue final determinations regarding the endangerment finding in 2023.

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