Energy & Environment

EPA to assess health impacts of leaded aircraft fuel


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will investigate the potential negative impacts on human health from the emissions of airplanes using leaded fuel, the agency announced Wednesday.

A 2016 EPA report indicated piston-engine planes are the single largest airborne source of lead exposure. Leaded fuel from other sources was phased out in 1996 under the Clean Air Act, but it remains the only useable fuel for piston-engine airplanes, about 170,000 of which are currently airborne, according to the National Academies of Sciences. Overall airborne lead exposures in the U.S. have fallen 99 percent since 1980.

The agency will issue a formal proposal for public comment in 2022 before determining a final action next year, according to the EPA.

“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,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Lead exposure from piston-engine aircraft is a particular issue for communities in close proximity to airports that service such planes. A 2020 EPA report indicated that more than 5 million people live within 500 meters of such airports’ runways, with more than 160,000 children attending school in the same range. Lead exposure and poisoning has been spotlighted as an environmental justice issue in recent years, particularly after the water supply in Flint, Mich., was contaminated by lead after officials changed its source from Lake Michigan to the Flint River.

The EPA took action in response to petitions from a coalition of environmental groups, including the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Center for Environmental Health, Friends of the Earth, the Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition and the Oregon Aviation Watch, as well as Santa Clara County, Calif., and Middleton, Wis. The oldest of the petitions, from Friends of the Earth, dates back to 2006.

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