Protecting Communities From Air Pollution
In the 1970s, the United States began recognizing the harm of leaded gasoline. Lead is a known toxin and is linked to neurodevelopmental damage. After years of effort and a phasedown, in 1996, leaded gasoline was completely banned from automobiles. But today, leaded gasoline is still used to fuel nearly 170,000 small aircraft across the country. This leaded aviation gasoline — or avgas — is the source of approximately 70% of lead released into the atmosphere, making it the nation’s leading contributor to airborne lead pollution.
This is especially dangerous for people that live near airports. These communities have been found to have higher levels of lead in their blood. And the 360,000+ children that live near airports around the country are even more at risk from lead exposure. In fact, one study found that children living downwind of an airport had blood lead levels on par with lead levels found in children during the peak of the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis.
And like many other environmental issues, exposure to toxic leaded aviation fuel is also an issue of environmental justice. Most general aviation airports with the highest lead emissions are located in communities of color. And many Native Alaskan communities are situated near Alaskan airports.
Friends of the Earth had numerous reasons to get involved. Dating back as far as 2003, we’ve been pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate lead in aviation fuel. That year, we submitted a comment letter asking the EPA for an endangerment finding from lead in aviation gasoline. And in 2006, we filed an administrative petition for EPA to conduct a study of the danger that leaded avgas has on public health.
It wasn’t until 2010 that EPA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) acknowledging the adverse health problems likely caused by lead in aviation fuel. The ANPR also found that communities living near airports and people working at airports or with general aviation planes could be at risk from exposure to lead emissions. But even as EPA’s own findings concluded how toxic lead is to public health, wildlife, and the environment — even at low doses — the agency failed to take steps to actually regulate avgas. So in 2012, we went to court again, suing the EPA for its inaction. The agency agreed to issue an endangerment finding in 2015, but unfortunately those plans never materialized.
Years passed and our campaign for cleaner air continued. We got tens of thousands of our members to get involved by calling for a phase out of dangerous, toxic leaded avgas. And in 2021, we filed another petition calling on the EPA to take the necessary steps to regulate lead pollution from aircraft. We also joined over 35 organizations and individuals in a letter demanding EPA’s action on the issue.
Finally, in October 2023, EPA announced its final endangerment finding on leaded aviation gas, a crucial step toward protecting the health of so many who have been unjustly exposed to toxic air pollution and irreversible health impacts!
After 20 years of campaigning with partners such as Oregon Aviation Watch, Earthjustice, the Golden Gate Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, we could finally celebrate this win. Communities near the 20,000 airports across the country that host aircraft that use leaded avgas will soon breathe cleaner air. And this has been a true victory in our fight for environmental justice. We look forward to the day that leaded avgas is banned once and for all, just as leaded gasoline in motor vehicles was banned over 25 years ago.