Bad News: Children poisoned by lead aircraft fuel due to inaction by Big Oil and the EPA

Families playing at nearby park as a small plane passes overhead producing lead pollution. Credit: Politico

By Gillian Ramirez, Alliance Intern from UC San Diego

We have long recognized that lead in gasoline was a serious environmental and health threat, particularly for children. Thirty years ago it was banned, along with the use of lead in commercial jet fuel. However, it’s still allowed to be used in small aircraft and is causing harm to children living near airports used by small aircraft, according to Politico. It’s taken 15 years of advocacy from affected families and communities for the EPA to finally put a proposal forward, despite the existence of viable non-lead alternative fuels.

A study in collaboration with the CA Department of Public Health showed that “toddlers in 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.” The Federal Aviation Administration has struggled for decades to make any promises for new fuel in spite of the alarming evidence that “smaller aircraft crisscrossing U.S. airspace is the single largest source of lead in the air today,” according to Politico

This past October, the EPA brought forward a proposal about ditching leaded gas. The “EPA first considered issuing a finding that airplane emissions endangered public health in 2010. At the time, industry groups pushed the agency not to issue the finding until 100-octane unleaded fuel could be developed,” Politico pointed out. 

Unfortunately, large corporations like Chevron and Exxon Mobil have been forcefully resisting this approval in order to maintain their small, yet clearly defined market. Their vested economic and political interests have been blocking the use of far-safer aviation fuels

Companies have argued that the lead is needed to boost octane levels, which prevent airplane engines from misfiring. Consequently, the FAA has been seeking non-lead, 100-octane fuels, even though “Almost three-quarters of general aircraft don’t require 100-octane fuel to fly safely.”

Meanwhile, General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI), a small aerospace company in Oklahoma, did find a solution. They started working on a 100-octane zero-lead formula in 2009, according to Politico. “It found the secret sauce within nine months, said George Braly, the aeronautical engineer who founded the company. GAMI the next year asked the FAA to certify that airplanes can fly on the fuel. Braly got his initial approval from the agency last summer — 12 years later.”

As Politico points out, “The FAA wouldn’t comment on the lengthy review before its decision in September. But in a statement the agency characterized the approval as a ‘major step toward supporting the safe replacement of leaded aviation fuel.’” GAMI has to find a refinery to produce and distribute the fuel, which would mean partnering with an oil major.

We need to protect our kids and fight for our human right to clean air. Let’s stop Big Oil from having such power and support the EPA in taking action.

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