Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released a complete endangerment finding for lead in aviation gas (avgas) used in piston-engine airplanes, a huge step to ensure Alaskan communities are protected from the nation’s largest source of lead emissions. There is no known safe level of lead for humans. Lead is known to interfere with the growth of children’s brains and cause lifelong loss of cognitive functions.
This recent development essentially means EPA must issue emission standards for lead pollution from these planes and work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue lead standards for piston engine airplanes. ACAT serves individuals throughout Alaska, where the majority of rural communities are not accessible by road and where piston-engine aircraft are used for transportation of passengers and vital goods and services.
Alaska has hundreds of airports, and more than 10,000 piston-engine planes – nearly 96 percent of the commercial fleet – that use leaded avgas. Many of the people ACAT serves are Indigenous, whom EPA found make up almost half the population living within 500 meters of one of the hundreds of Alaska airports, despite making up only 15 percent of the state’s population. ACAT has a strong interest in safeguarding Alaskans by eliminating exposures to lead from piston-engine aircraft emissions.
“Preventing lead exposure from leaded aviation gas and implementing safe alternatives must be an urgent priority and environmental justice obligation for the Biden-Harris administration that can no longer be ignored,” said Vi Waghiyi, environmental health and justice program director of ACAT.
Lead in gasoline was recognized as a danger to public health decades ago and actions were taken at that time to phase out and ultimately ban lead from gasoline for automobiles. These same steps can and must now be followed to remove lead from avgas in the US. There are several viable unleaded avgas alternatives that are safe and effective and will work for most small single and twin piston aircraft.
ACAT has conducted preliminary investigations of lead levels in topsoil of gardens, parks, and schools within one mile of Anchorage’s Merrill Field Airport and detected levels of lead between 5.3 and 22.9 parts per million (ppm).
Lead poisoning is one of the most preventable environmental diseases of young children. It is long past time for EPA to eliminate the largest remaining source of lead emissions in Alaska and the country – and for the state to comprehensively ascertain the nature and extent of lead contamination near the state’s airports.
The finalized statement from the EPA is a result of a petition filed in 2021 by ACAT and other community groups across the country, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice. The petitioners include ACAT, Center for Environmental Health, Friends of the Earth, Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, and Oregon Aviation Watch.
While we are pleased that EPA has finalized the endangerment finding, it is imperative that EPA now act quickly on that finding and ban the country’s largest source of airborne lead emissions to prevent further contamination and health harm. Doing so would protect Alaskans’ health and the well–being of people across the country – specifically the most vulnerable, our children and future generations. The findings are clear; there is no excuse for delay.