EPA Begins Study on Lead Emissions from Piston-Powered Aircraft

Agency to examine the effects of leaded aircraft fuel on the health of children.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is launching a study to evaluate whether emissions from piston-powered aircraft operating on leaded fuel contribute to air pollution endangering the health of the public. The study, announced Wednesday, will focus on lead contamination near airports and the effect it has on children who live nearby. 

“Protecting children’s health and reducing lead exposure are interlocking priorities at the core of EPA’s agenda,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “[The] EPA has been investigating the air quality impact of lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft near airports for years, and now we’re going to apply that information to determine whether this pollution endangers human health and welfare.”

How We Got Here

The EPA maintains the study was launched, in part, because of petitions from a number of organizations, including the county of Santa Clara, California. On January 1, the county enacted a ban on the sale of leaded fuel at county-sponsored airports Reid-Hillview (KRHV) in San Jose and San Martin Airport (E16), south of Morgan Hill.

In August 2021, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to ban the sale of 100LL at  county-sponsored airports as a means of reducing the airport’s contribution to lead air pollution. The ban allegedly was in response to a county-sponsored study into blood lead levels (BLL) in children. The study looked at the BLL in children in all California counties. According to the county’s interpretation of the study, children living near the airport have a high BLL and the use of leaded fuels at the airport is partially to blame.

Opponents of the fuel sales ban are skeptical of the study, saying that it did not adequately address other potential sources of lead contamination such as leaded paint, pipes, and industrial emissions from manufacturing. 

Instead, they argue that the county has manufactured a health crisis as a means to devalue KRHV with the intent of  closing the facility and redeveloping the property. The airport has accepted grants from the FAA that obligate the county to keep the airport open until at least 2031.

The flight schools at KRHV and E16 are now operating most of their fleets on 94UL, an unleaded replacement fuel. There are two other airports in Santa Clara County that sell 100LL: Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (KSJC) and Palo Alto Airport (KPAO). As they are not sponsored by the county, they are not subject to the ban.

The ban does not prohibit aircraft using leaded fuels from flying in or out of KRHV and E16.

More From the EPA

The EPA states that levels of airborne lead in the U.S. have declined 99 percent since 1980, and that the “largest remaining source of lead emissions into the air are piston engine aircraft.” 

“[The] EPA has been investigating the air quality impact of lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft near airports for years, and now we’re going to apply that information to determine whether this pollution endangers human health and welfare.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA reviews information on air pollutants and sources of air pollution to determine whether they threaten human health or welfare. Any such threats they identify are referred to as “endangerment findings.” 

This year, the EPA plans to issue a proposed endangerment finding for piston-engine aircraft that use leaded fuel. The finding will be made available for public comment and review. The final determination on the endangerment finding is expected to be announced next year.

The medical community has known for decades that lead exposure can lead to serious health issues and is particularly harmful to children because they absorb lead faster and in greater quantities than adults.

Potential health issues include:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Problems with the nervous and cardiovascular system 
  • Reproductive issues.

Since the 1950s, there has been a nationwide effort to identify and reduce lead emissions, including the banning of lead in paint, pipes, and other building materials. Lead exposure can come from many sources, including contaminated soil, the burning of industrial waste, and manufacturing.

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