EPA Declares Leaded Plane Fuel Poses a Threat to Public Health
Leaded gasoline used in small-engine aircraft poses a serious public health risk, particularly for children, according to new findings issued by federal environmental regulators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement on October 18, announcing that it has made a final determination under the Clean Air Act that emissions of lead from planes cause or contribute to air pollution, which can result in lead poisoning for children and early death in adults
The ruling serves as an announcement that EPA intends to impose regulatory standards for lead emissions from certain aircraft engines, since it endangers public health. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must address the composition, chemical, or physical properties of aircraft fuel or fuel additives.
Leaded Fuel Health Risks
The EPA first proposed an endangerment finding in 2022, warning leaded airplane fuel posed a threat to public health, especially for those who live near airports.
Aircraft that operate on leaded gasoline are often small piston-engine planes that carry two to 10 passengers and are nearly 50 years old. Leaded gasoline was originally designed to help prevent small planes from experiencing engine trouble in flight. Jet aircraft used for commercial flights do not use leaded fuel.
However, there are roughly 170,000 small-engine planes that still use leaded gasoline, according to the EPA. Those planes primarily fly into small airports.
Since 1980, levels of airborne lead declined by 99%. However, aircraft that continue to use leaded fuel pose a health risk, particularly to communities near to general aviation airports, the agency reports.
Those communities, housing nearly 5 million people, experience disproportionate exposure to lead from leaded aviation fuel emissions. The EPA estimates that roughly 360,000 children who live in those communities have high levels of lead in their blood.
Research warns that any level of lead exposure during childhood is unsafe for children. Exposure to lead from gasoline emissions caused half of the American population born before 1980 to lose more than 824 million IQ points according to recent research.
“The science is clear: exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects in children,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions in our air.”
New Unleaded Fuel for Small Airplanes Under Development
The FAA recently approved the use of 100 octane unleaded fuel in piston-engine aircraft, but it is not commercially available yet.
Considering the new endangerment finding, both the EPA and the FAA must consider new regulatory options and plan to announce timelines for regulation soon.
The endangerment finding calls on Congress to stop the use of leaded fuel, but the finding is not enough, and Congress must consider long-term plans to phase out leaded aviation fuel, according to the agency. Additionally, the EPA is calling on Congress to consider bipartisan proposals to allow small airports to continue to use leaded fuel until appropriate measures and alternatives are available.
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