Leaded aviation fuel is prompting bipartisan outrage among US legislators

Leaded aviation fuel is prompting bipartisan outrage among US legislators
Photo: Ueslei Marcelino (Reuters)
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More than 50 years after the US began phasing lead out of the gasoline supply for automobiles, leaded fuel remains in use all around the country by small, piston-engine aircraft, poisoning the air breathed in by millions of children who live in close proximity to the country’s general aviation airports.

On July 28, six weeks after Quartz published its investigation into the maddening persistence of leaded aviation gas, a Congressional subcommittee held hearings on the fuel’s toxicity, and on the slow pace of progress in developing unleaded alternatives.

A range of witnesses offered poignant testimony about the problem (more on them below). But some of the most powerful messages came from the dais, where members of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on the environment largely came together in a bipartisan plea for federal agencies to move faster in phasing out leaded airplane fuel—and expressed bipartisan shock at the scope of the problem and how hidden it has been from the public agenda.

“While lead pipes and paint are well known contributors to this mass poisoning of American people, especially in our children, leaded aviation fuel is not,” said Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat whose district is not far from Flint, where contamination of the water supply a few years ago put the dangers of lead exposure back on the public’s radar.

“This is a wakeup call,” she added, thanking subcommittee chairman Ro Khanna of California for bringing the issue to her attention. She only recently learned about lead emission levels at airports in and around her district—“I actually looked this up because of this committee hearing,” she said—concluding, “When planes from these airports fly over our communities, they are crop-dusting our neighborhoods with lead-poisoned air.”

Representative Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico, sounded a similar warning. “Exposure to lead can have devastating health effects on humans,” said said, “and this committee would be hard pressed to find someone who did not want to find a solution to this complex problem.”

Who’s working to get lead out of the aviation fuel supply?

The Congressional panel heard testimony from George Braly, the aerospace engineer who can’t seem to get the FAA’s top brass to sign off on the unleaded fuel he’s developed at a hangar in Ada, Oklahoma. Cindy Chavez was there, too; she’s the commissioner of Santa Clara County, California, which recently became the first local government to bar planes from refueling on its property with leaded formulas. (The county owns Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley; it is one of the busiest small airports in the country, with densely populated neighborhoods surrounding it, and an elementary school that shares a fence line with it.)

Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University offered the panel a brief, disturbing lecture on the effects of childhood lead poisoning. Maricela Lechuga, who like many residents of East San Jose descends from Mexican immigrants who settled in the neighborhood surrounding Reid-Hillview, talked about growing up in the shadow of a lead-emitting airport. The panel also heard from Chris D’Acosta, the CEO of Swift Fuels, which sells unleaded aviation gas for planes that are compatible with it and hopes to have a formula ready for the full US fleet of piston-engine aircraft within the next three years.

The case for keeping leaded fuel in circulation

While most everyone at the hearing pressed for swift removal of lead from the fuel supply—several criticized the FAA’s 2030 timeframe for developing a replacement fuel as not being nearly ambitious enough—one speaker counseled a slow approach. Mike Flood, a Nebraska Republican, said grounding crop dusters that can’t run on unleaded alternatives would be devastating for agricultural areas in his state, and painful for the rest of the country in the form of higher corn prices.

“I certainly understand that lead exposure poses a serious health risk to human beings but we have to find solutions,” said Flood, laying bare the economic choice before us.

Khanna, the environment subcommittee chairman who called the hearing, says it’s possible to approach the transition as a series of choices, which could protect farmers in rural areas as well as children from the disproportionately low-income households situated near the nation’s general aviation airports.

“You can have exemptions for agriculture or in commercial areas” if the US Environmental Protection Agency bans leaded fuel, Khanna told Quartz after the hearing. “What we’re talking about is residential areas where a lot of kids are. If he [Flood] wants to carve out some exceptions for ag[riculture] in places where you need that until you have a transition [to unleaded fuel], he can.”

Why the emphasis on kids

Studies conducted long after the mandated removal of lead from automobile gasoline confirm that airborne lead continues to interrupt brain and nervous system development in children living near lead-emitting airports, causing lower IQs, higher numbers of kids with ADHD, and a range of other health issues, from heart disease to dementia.

Lead exposure isn’t healthy for adults either, but it’s more dangerous for children. Their developing brains and bodies absorb more lead dust, creating problems that persist into adulthood.

Chavez, the Santa Clara County commissioner, says 13,000 children live within 1.5 miles of Reid-Hillview, which is one of the highest lead-emitting airports in the country. A study commissioned by the county in 2020 found a clear link between lead exposure and proximity to the airport. As Quartz’s Michael Coren noted in his reporting on the issue, “the data was precise enough that [the researchers] could see if students commuted toward the airport or away from it for school based on their blood lead levels.”

After the study came out, Chavez testified, residents came to her and her colleagues, asking whether lead exposure might be the source of miscarriages they suffered or development disabilities diagnosed in their children. People “were seeing poor health outcomes and wanted to know how much of it was attributable to lead,” she said.

Where were the agency heads?

The FAA and EPA, whose cooperation will be needed to phase lead out of the fuel supply and usher in new formulations, took a bipartisan beating for not sending any senior officials to the hearing. Herrell called their absence “unconscionable.” Khanna told Quartz, “The next step is a subpoena if they don’t cooperate.”

The EPA did not respond to our request for comment. The FAA, for its part, says it’s committed to the 2030 deadline to get lead out of the US airplane fuel supply and will double the funding for these efforts in the next fiscal year to $12 million. Its acting administrator, Billy Nolen, whose presence was requested at the hearing, spent the day in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at EAA AirVenture, the US’s largest general aviation conference, where he was scheduled to speak on topics including the transition to unleaded aviation fuel.

What now?

When we last visited this topic with you, Quartz reporter Michael Coren, who led our investigation, shared ideas on how to take action. We’re republishing those here.

What you can do

Immediate action is most likely to come at the local level. Not all general aviation airports are publicly owned. But other jurisdictions already have reached out to officials in Santa Clara County about using its ban on refueling with leaded avgas as a model.

At the national level, the EPA plans to declare avgas a health hazard by 2023, and the FAA expects to approve a lead-free replacement for avgas by 2030. Deadlines like this have been missed before. Congressional pressure spurred on by voters, as well as legal action by advocacy groups such as Friends of the Earth and Earth Justice, which are pursuing the issue in court, could help ensure the timelines are met.

If you’re worried about your child’s lead exposure, local health departments and doctors can provide a simple test covered by insurance or Medicaid. All two-year-olds should get lead tests during a regular doctor’s visit. While there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, families can take steps (pdf) to minimize their exposure to lead at home and at school.

If you want to know what’s happening at airports in your area, Quartz built a searchable library of maps showing the neighborhoods surrounding 95 of the top lead-emitting airports in the US.

Our full investigation was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It includes the following pieces: