EPA to review rules for largest source of lead in air

By Ariel Wittenberg | 01/12/2022 04:25 PM EST

A piston-engine plane being built in Kansas.

A piston-engine plane being built in Kansas. AP Photo/Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying

EPA today announced plans to “review and evaluate” whether emissions from piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded fuel — the largest source of atmospheric lead pollution — endanger public health and welfare.

The agency will issue a proposal on leaded aviation fuel in 2022 and finalize it in 2023.

EPA’s announcement comes in response to petitions it received in August from health organizations including Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Center for Environmental Health and Friends of the Earth (Greenwire, Aug. 24, 2021).

“Protecting children’s health and reducing lead exposure are interlocking priorities at the core of EPA’s agenda,” agency Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “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.”

Though leaded gasoline for cars and for most other motor vehicles was banned 25 years ago, leaded aviation fuel is still used in nearly 170,000 piston-engine aircraft across 20,000 airports nationwide. The single-piston aircraft account for about 70 percent of lead released into the atmosphere. One reason leaded aviation gas hasn’t been banned for small piston-engine plans is that it helps boost the fuel’s octane, protecting engines against early detonation and preventing engine failure in flight.

But the pollution is particularly problematic for children, for whom lead contamination can lead to neurological and developmental problems. EPA’s own data shows that over 360,000 children under the age of 5 live near at least one of the airports where piston-engine aircraft operate. Multiple additional studies have shown that children living near such airports have higher levels of lead in their blood.

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

Today’s announcement follows years of inaction from EPA on leaded aviation fuel, despite pleas from environmental and health organizations, including Friends of the Earth, which had previously petitioned EPA in 2006.

Most recently, the Trump administration did not follow through on a promise made by EPA in 2009 that it would issue a proposed endangerment finding for leaded aviation fuel by 2017. The Trump administration’s silence on the topic gained national attention in 2018 when Ruth Etzel blamed her removal from her job leading EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection over a disagreement over leaded fuel (Greenwire, May 12, 2021).

"The past administration’s inaction had serious consequences for children’s health and development," Etzel wrote in an email to E&E News in May. "Children only get one chance to develop properly. Think of the millions of children who now have irreversible neurodevelopmental problems because the government didn’t take action. The clock is ticking."

The effort to regulate leaded gasoline has been opposed by some aviation enthusiasts, including members of Congress — like House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) — who fly smaller planes. They have argued that banning leaded gas for airplanes shouldn’t be done until there is a low-cost, safe alternative.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative has been on the task since 2013. The latest update on the initiative’s website, from summer 2020, says that fuel testing was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but that pre-screening tests would resume this year.