Representatives Discuss the Impacts of Leaded Aviation Fuel on Communities and Children

Some general aviation aircraft use high-compression piston engines, which requires gasoline with a high octane level. While lower-compression automobile engines have been able to phase out lead, aviation fuel, or avgas, requires 100 octane. Decades after cars stopped using lead in fuel, small airplanes are still using it.

And that has consequences. Today, lead exposure can come from a variety of places – old (pre-ban) paint, house dust, poorly maintained rental housing, soil in smelting communities, and pipelines. However, 70 percent of all lead emissions, or over 450 tons, are emitted by piston engines. 

On Thursday, July 28, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing to discuss the negative impacts of leaded aviation fuel, particularly on minority communities and children, and potential future solutions. 

The Environment Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), hosted the hearing, “Toxic Air: How Leaded Aviation Fuel is Poisoning America’s Children,” and invited high-level members of both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency chiefs were unable to testify and no other deputies or senior Administration officials appeared, a move that was condemned by several of the committee members. 

Witnesses included: 

In his opening remarks, Khanna gave an overview of the problems associated with leaded aviation fuel in the United States. He reported that there are 20,000 aviation facilities in the country that use leaded fuel, and within 1 kilometer of those facilities, there are over 16 million people, including 3 million children. Over 600 schools are located within half a kilometer of such a site. 

Minority communities are disproportionately close to these locations. Over 60 percent of the 50 highest emitting airports are in communities where the minority population is higher than the national average. 

Reid-Hillview Airport

Speakers at the hearing focused heavily on the Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose, Santa Clara County. Reid-Hillview Airport, one of the highest lead emitting sites in the country, is surrounded by one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of any airport. 52,000 people and 13,000 children live within 1.5 miles of the airport. In 2017, Reid-Hillview Airport was in the top 1.5 percent in annual lead emissions of all landing facilities in the national system. 

Maricella Lechuga, a resident near the airport, spoke about the disproportionate effect the exposure from Reid-Hillview has on minorities in East San Jose. Within the 1.5 mile area around the airport, 61 percent of people are Latino and 79 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. Lechuga explained that East San Jose residents could not vote for a city council member from candidates living in their district until 1978. She further discussed how land use decisions of the past continue to affect communities today. 

Impacts of Leaded Aviation Fuel in Children

Khanna and several witnesses spoke about the negative likely effects of leaded aviation fuel on children who live close to an airport emitting lead, downwind, or in the flight path.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez spoke about a study conducted by the county in 2021 which observed over 300,000 blood tests of children in the area. The study found that for children living within half a mile of the airport, blood lead levels were twice as high as those in Flint, Michigan during the peak of the water crisis. 

Results indicated that there is a correlation between the sale of leaded avgas and blood lead levels in children in East San Jose, which is consistent with national findings. Similarly, as airport traffic increased, blood lead levels in children increased. 

Bruce Lanphear, Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, also spoke about the impacts of leaded aviation fuel. Increased lead levels in children can diminish reading and cognitive abilities, lower IQ, and increase the likelihood of developing ADHD. Lead exposure is also a causal risk factor for coronary heart disease. 

Lanphear emphasized that the smallest amounts of lead exposure cause the most drastic effects. For example, the largest drop in IQ occurs in the lowest levels of lead poisoning; a lead measurement of 100 parts per billion (ppb) is correlated with a six point drop in IQ, while a subsequent increase to 200 ppb can lead to a 2 point drop in IQ. 

Alternatives to Leaded Aviation Fuel

There is currently no approved alternative to 100 low-lead (100LL) avgas that will work for the full national fleet. However, two of the witnesses spoke about alternatives their organizations have developed or are in the process of developing. 

George Braly, an aerospace engineer and the CEO of General Aviation Modifications, discussed his company’s process of working to find a solution. The group has tried for 12 years to gain FAA approval for their alternative to cover all spark ignition piston engines. Braly stated that although they and the Wichita aircraft certification regional office had completed all regulatory requirements, the FAA had not yet signed off. 

The CEO of Swift Fuels LLC, Chris D’Acosta, talked about his own company’s work to find an alternative. Swift Fuels specializes in developing and commercializing fuels and fuel processing technologies. Currently, Swift is the developer and sole provider of 94 unleaded (94UL) avgas, which is FAA approved and can serve more than 68 percent of the U.S. piston-engine fleet. The company is also working on a proprietary certification program for their 100 motor octane fuel replacement.

(Ed. Note: A December 2021 TRB study noted the problem: if you try to push 94UL out right now, many GA airports would have to offer both it and regular 100LL at the same time, which would require those airports to double their number of avgas storage tanks and pumps. Those airports would, no doubt, come to Congress asking for money to defray the costs of those investments.)

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) emphasized that 2030 is too long to wait considering the current impacts of lead poisoning. Even though the EPA sets 2030 as a timeline for achieving a complete alternative, Swift Fuels believes they can begin rollout of their 100 octane replacement in the middle of 2023 and be fully rolled out in the following one to two years. 

Rep. Mike Flood (R-NE) encouraged industry to take the initiative in terms of researching and developing alternatives to leaded avgas. Since engine piston planes are used for many agricultural purposes, Flood expressed concern for top down regulatory decisions from the FAA or EPA to ban leaded fuel, which might have consequences for agriculture and crop prices. 

Santa Clara County Response

In the absence of a complete alternative to leaded avgas, Santa Clara County took action after conducting their own study in the San Jose area; they banned the sale of leaded avgas at the Reid-Hillview Airport on January 1 of this year, becoming the first airport operator in the country to do so. Supervisor Chavez reported virtually no impact on airport operations following this transition, actually seeing a four percent increase in operations in the first six months. They have also had no safety incidents related to unleaded avgas and no requests to use emergency access to leaded fuel. 

However, the county did contend with aviation interest groups who submitted requests to the FAA to force the county to sell leaded avgas. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) submitted several letters to the hearing record, including a letter in December of 2021 from the FAA to Santa Clara County after their decision requesting that they continue to sell leaded fuel. 

As companies, local governments, and representatives develop and manage different solutions, time will tell whether we’ll see an alternative soon or if regulations will lead the way through phasing out leaded aviation fuel.

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