Groups press EPA to address toxic lead air pollution from aviation gasoline

Groups press EPA to address toxic lead air pollution from aviation gasoline

Evidence linking ill-health, especially in children, to airborne lead emissions mounts as EPA fails to act

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Three leading advocacy groups filed a petition today asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to address harms caused by lead emissions generated by the continued use of leaded aviation gasoline (avgas). Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that destroys nerve tissue and causes a variety of health and neurological problems, particularly in children. Accordingly, EPA required a phase-out of lead in automobile fuel almost 20 years ago. But despite the fact that avgas-fueled aircraft are the single largest source of lead air emissions in the country, it has refused to impose any limits on this dangerous pollution source. Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oregon Aviation Watch have called on EPA to take the first step needed to begin to regulate lead emissions from aircraft.

“It is astonishing that, given EPA’s understanding of the serious health effects of lead exposure and its recognition of general aviation aircraft as the single largest source of lead emissions, this toxic pollution stream remains unregulated,” said Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth. “We have been continually frustrated with EPA’s delay, and more than that, shocked that EPA allows the health of airport workers, pilots, passengers, and the communities surrounding these airports to remain unprotected from a known poison.”

Friends of the Earth, represented by public interest law firm Earthjustice and the Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law, has been urging EPA to make an endangerment finding regarding lead emissions from general aviation aircraft since 2003. EPA denied an earlier petition from Friends of the Earth, stating that it was not ready to determine whether lead emissions from aircraft contributed to pollution that may endanger public health. Given new evidence about the effects of the toxic pollution source, Friends of the Earth — now joined by PSR and OAW — is asking EPA to reconsider its denial of the original petition and to issue an endangerment finding under the Clean Air Act for lead emissions from aircraft. 

The conditions required for endangerment are that lead emissions from aircraft engines fueled by leaded avgas cause or contribute to air pollution and that lead air pollution is reasonably anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare. Both of these conditions have been met and, in fact, substantiated by EPA already. EPA’s contention that it must complete additional studies before making an endangerment finding is not supported by the law or the facts.

“EPA’s delay in making an endangerment finding ignores clear science,” said Kathy Attar, Toxics Program Manager for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The agency is contradicting its own admissions about the health risks of lead and the causal connection between lead emissions from general aviation aircraft and air pollution. And now, new scientific studies show that children suffer irreversible neurological and cognitive damage from exposure to even a small amount of lead. EPA knows that exposure to lead is not safe at any level. Every minute that EPA fails to act is causing permanent harm to children.”

In fact, according to EPA estimates, sixteen million people reside and three million children attend school in close proximity to the over 20,000 airports where leaded avgas may be used.

“We are simply asking that EPA make an affirmative endangerment finding and establish regulations to protect millions from ill health caused by the known toxic effects of lead,” said Miki Barnes, President of Oregon Aviation Watch. “The facts are clear. There is no “safe” level of blood lead, or exposure to lead, especially for children. That’s why the law protects us from lead in paint and in our automobiles. In light of the evidence and the lives hanging in the balance, EPA must cease stalling and quickly move to regulate and ultimately eliminate the threat of lead poisoning from avgas as well.”


Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth, (510) 900-3144, [email protected]
Bridget Lee, Earthjustice, (212) 845-7379, [email protected]
Deborah Behles, Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law, (415) 369-5336, [email protected]
Kathy Attar, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 323-350-2422, [email protected]
Miki Barnes, Oregon Aviation Watch, 503-324-0291, [email protected]

Friends of the Earth fights to defend the environment and create a more healthy and just world. Its current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, keeping toxic and risky technologies out of the food we eat and products we use, and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is the largest physician-led nonprofit organization in the U.S. working to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.

Oregon Aviation Watch is a non-profit organization dedicated to research, education and advocacy on behalf of the public interest and public welfare and seeks to enhance and protect the quality of life for Oregon residents by eliminating the adverse impacts of aviation activity

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm that specializes in cases protecting natural resources, safeguarding public health, and promoting clean energy. The firm has been a critical player in a number of important, precedent-setting cases including forcing the EPA to fight global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the first Supreme Court case to ever address the issue of climate change.

The Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law was established in 1994 and is one of the first law clinics in the U.S. to prioritize environmental justice in its work. The clinic’s mission is to train law students to be effective and ethical lawyers and to improve environmental conditions for communities of color and low-income people. The clinic’s certified law students wrote the 2006 petition to EPA on behalf of Friends of the Earth.


After first denying the existence of sufficient evidence to make an endangerment determination, EPA finally issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2010 (four years after Friends of the Earth’s original petition). This notice fully acknowledged the serious health effects associated with exposure to lead and confirming that avgas-fueled aircraft are the largest single source for airborne lead emissions in the country, comprising half of the nation’s total. EPA further noted that communities living near general aviation airports, children attending school near these airports, and pilots, passengers, and airport workers are all at risk of exposure to lead from this source.

But in 2012, EPA denied the request for an endangerment finding, estimating that it would take up to an additional three years in order to make a judgment on whether lead emissions from aircraft play a role in air pollution which can or does endanger public health or welfare.

However, new scientific evidence shows that enough information for an endangerment judgment exists now. A July 2011 study from Duke University published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives supports concerns about the severe and negative public health consequences caused by lead emissions from aircraft. The report found that children living within 500 meters of an airport at which planes use leaded avgas have higher blood lead levels than other children. This effect of aircraft lead emissions on blood lead levels was also evident among children living within 1 kilometer of airports. The researchers concluded that there is a significant association between potential exposure to lead emissions from aviation gasoline and blood lead levels in children.

In addition, results of lead monitoring conducted by EPA at 17 general aviation airports around the country were announced in June 2013, confirming the existing danger and further reinforcing the need for immediate EPA action to phase out lead in avgas. Two airports in California, McClellan-Palomar Airport in San Diego County and San Carlos Airport in San Mateo County, were found to exceed the air quality standards set by EPA for lead. Both violating airports have an elementary school located approximately one half-mile away.

Once EPA makes an affirmative endangerment finding, the agency must then propose and issue emission standards. The Federal Aviation Administration currently estimates that 75 percent of small planes could be using unleaded fuel without any additional technology, making a relatively smooth transition to unleaded aviation fuel quite feasible.

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