The United States banned leaded gasoline for cars long ago, but smaller aircraft continue to use the fuel — and it’s exposing hundreds of thousands of children to lead poisoning. That has led to massive health consequences for children who live below the flight path of these small airplanes. Toddlers in California’s East San Jose have concentrations of lead in their blood on par with children tested at the height of the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich.
A Niche Market
The people who make aviation fuel know how to make aviation fuel. It’s a niche market, so the producers are also the best subject-matter experts. The problem, however, is that the [committee] that approves these fuels runs on consensus. The same producers that have a vested financial interest in keeping lead in aviation fuel also have immense power to block any unleaded competition from coming to market.
Extent Of Damage
There are 5.2 million people that live within 500 meters of an airport runway, and 363,000 of them are children under five. Research has shown that living that close to a general aviation airport can increase levels of lead in kids’ blood. Lead is a neurotoxin that impairs cognitive development and is linked to lower IQ, so any exposure to it can be incredibly damaging.
It’s hard to say when this will all be resolved. If EPA does move to totally ban lead in aviation fuel, it could be years before such a measure would take effect. The FAA has an initiative in coordination with the aviation and fuel industries to find a high-octane unleaded fuel, with the goal of one being widely available by 2030. But similar initiatives have existed over the past decade, and all of them have blown through their deadlines.
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