Lead, a metal additive in many products for many decades, destroys the nervous system and ultimately causes brain damage and death. Exposures to small amounts can lead to behavioral problems in children and adults as well as learning disabilities, seizures, and ultimately death.
It’s no wonder it has been banned in paint and in 1995 leaded gasoline was phased out. Most people think that exposure to lead must be dwindling, but lead still leaches out of old pipes in cities around the nation and has even been detected in school water fountains.
Few people know that huge amounts of lead continue to be released into our atmosphere, affecting public health. Jet aircraft have been using unleaded fuel for some time, but smaller, piston engine planes somehow got an exemption and are still allowed to use leaded gas. It’s called “avgas.”
Although leaded airplane gas accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s liquid fuel use, fifty percent of the lead emissions in our air comes from aircraft using leaded aviation gas. The aircraft industry has successfully gotten federal regulators to let public health be sacrificed in exchange for high octane aircraft fuel for the small commuter flight operators, weekend pilots and aviation enthusiasts and hobbyists around the nation.
Supporters of leaded aviation gas claim that it achieves the high octane required for the engines of piston-driven airplanes.
Research conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 showed that the level of led in children’s blood increased near airports. A study of a residential neighborhood close to the airport runway at the Santa Monica Airport in California found lead levels to be significantly higher than background levels. The combustion of leaded avgas by small airplane engines may pose a health risk to children who live or attend school near airports. Since the lead in air surrounding airports can be inhaled directly, it could pose a grave danger to children. Lead may also be ingested by children after it settles into soil or dust.
The EPA determined that about 16 million people live within 1 km of an airport with planes using avgas, and 3 million children attend school within 1 km of these airports.
It is difficult to assess the local situation in Seattle and the Puget Sound Region. Monitoring of airborne lead in the Puget Sound region ended in 1999, a year after a lead smelter on Seattle’s Harbor Island shut down. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency said “airborne lead is no longer a public health concern in the Puget Sound region,” local public radio station KUOW reported.
KUOW also reported that Marie Lynn Miranda, an environmental health scientist and a dean at the University of Michigan who has examined the lead exposure of children living within a kilometer of airports in North Carolina said “Living close to an airport can increase your blood lead level anywhere from 2 to 4 percent. That’s small. But we’re getting more and more evidence that indicates even very small amounts of lead is bad.”
It seems like all concerned in the Seattle area are keeping their heads in the sand regarding lead near airports. Gary Molyneaux, Boeing Field’s head planner, toldKUOW that Avgas represents “a very small proportion of our fuel usage here at the airport. “ He said that the airport is concerned and watching lead emissions but added that there’s not enough data to understand it.
In 2011, the EPA started a pilot project to monitor airborne lead at 15 airports, including two in the Northwest — Harvey Field in Snohomish and Auburn Municipal Airport south of Seattle.
This problem is more serious than those involved are willing to admit. KUOW reported that Washington state ranks fifth in the country for lead emissions from airplanes and per person, all the Northwest states use more avgas than the national average.
Rob Richey maintenance director At Kenmore Air Harbor on Lake Washington told KUOW that half of Kenmore’s business depends on plans that burn leaded fuel. “Honestly, if leaded fuel without an alternative is removed, our industry will be dead,” he said. “If a fuel could be developed that was lead-free, it’s fine with us. But because our market is so small, whether the big refiners go to the trouble to make it, that’s the big question.”
Avgas is not just an issue in the U.S. Around the world, avgas is used by thousands of small twin engine planes that transport goods, tourists, and services. Other countries, like Uganda for example, don’t concern themselves with the toxic lead issue. There are concerned with availability. The avgas supplies have run out in some countries and critics say that companies like Shell Oil, a major producer of avgas, doesn’t try hard enough to supply them.
See the complete KUOW story, “Flying The Leaded Skies,” at http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=25817
See Shell Oil’s statement about avgas at http://www.shell.com/home/content/aviation/aeroshell/technical_talk/techart12_30071515.html
Read about the international situation due to a shortage of avgas in lesser developed countries at http://www.eturbonews.com/15329/avgas-aviation-fuel-disaster-uganda
Looking for a lead-free alternative:http://www.aopa.org/advocacy/articles/2010/101228searching_for_the_new_avgas.html