The forgotten source of lead that’s still spewing into our air

Leaded fuel was banned from cars in the 70s, but airplanes still use it.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock

Miki Barnes has spent decades just trying to get away from airplanes. But they seem to keep finding her.

She and her husband moved to their current house near Hillsboro, Oregon from one that was directly under a flight path from Portland International Airport. “My husband and I decided we were tired of it, tired of the politics, tired of the noise,” she said. “I just wanted a quiet place to live and live my life.”

So when their children all left the nest and went to college, the Barneses picked out a place that was far from the Portland airport’s flight path. But then the Hillsboro Airport was turned into a major flight training school for pilots, and planes piloted by trainees began circling over her house for hours at a time.

It was only when Barnes started clashing with Hillsboro and the Port of Portland over the sound that she learned that something even more toxic than noise pollution was spilling out of the airport: lead. Hillsboro is one of the 20,000 airports throughout the country that still allows leaded aviation fuel, used by smaller propeller planes.

And while it’s hard to say for sure that the airport is a direct cause of lead poisoning, Hillsboro has a lead problem. “I test all my [child patients] usually at one or so years of age,” noted Jim Lubischer, a pediatrician in the area who works with Barnes’s group, Oregon Aviation Watch. “About 75 percent have elevated blood levels” of lead. While that doesn’t mean all the tests reveal levels above the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) level of concern — 5 micrograms per deciliter —the results do indicate some level of lead in the patients’ blood, and the CDC has said there is no safe level.

Lubischer sees the problem show up in his exam room in other ways: lead has been linked to ADHD, and about 10 to 15 percent of the children he sees have the disorder.

“It’s hard to just say oh… it’s because of the airport,” he said. But, he noted, “we actually have major lead in the air out here.”

“We actually have major lead in the air out here.”

Lead was banned and eventually phased out from automobile gasoline starting in 1973, but at the time, aviation gas—avgas for short — was left out of the rule. “At that time, it was reasonable to say, ‘Let’s look at lead in gas first [and] look at aviation gas later,’” said Marianne Engelman Lado, senior staff attorney at the environmental organization Earthjustice.

But lead in aviation fuel has never gotten its day in the sun, and now it’s the largest source of lead in the air. While the most common cause of lead poisoning is lead paint in old housing, children can still absorb lead in the air by breathing it in or accidentally consuming it after playing in soil where it’s fallen from the air. And an estimated 16 million people live within a kilometer of one of the 20,000 airports that still use leaded avgas.

In 2011, Marie Lynn Miranda, provost and professor of statistics at Rice University, and her colleagues published a study looking at the relationship between children living near one of these airports in North Carolina and lead in their blood. They found that kids who lived as far away as 1,000 meters had higher levels.

“There was a strong association between living near one of these airports where the leaded avgas is used and levels of blood lead,” Miranda said. “It made me worried about whether or not we have the right kinds of policies in place to protect children.”

“It made me worried about whether or not we have the right kinds of policies in place to protect children.”

While the increases in lead levels that Miranda found were often small, they can still hurt children’s health. “In my own research that looks at early childhood blood lead levels and educational performance… we saw an impact on test scores of blood lead levels as low as 2” micrograms per deciliter, she noted.

Another study recently conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the impact on IQ from leaded aviation fuel is reducing the country’s earnings by $1 billion and leading to a $500 million decrease in labor productivity.

“There are some compounds like zinc where it’s an essential nutrient but if you get too much of it, it’s bad for you,” Miranda added. “There’s no physiological need for lead.”

Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization, was commenting on a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule about another toxic emission in the early 2000s when it found an exemption in the Clean Air Act for aviation fuel. “We of course were shocked,” said Marcie Keever, oceans & vessels program director at Friends of the Earth.

So the group began taking legal action. In 2006, Friends of the Earth filed a citizen petition to request that the EPA make an endangerment finding for lead in airplane fuel. Such a finding itself wouldn’t trigger a ban; instead, it would kickstart the regulatory process looking at how to address the problem, likely by phasing lead out of all fuel.

But the EPA didn’t respond. In 2012, the group filed litigation to force the EPA’s hand. While that effort ultimately failed, the EPA did respond during that process and said that it was working on the issue and would have a result by 2015. “It’s 2016, and what we hear from the EPA is 2018 now,” Keever noted.

Earthjustice, which has worked with Friends of the Earth in leaning on the EPA to take action, has decided to wait until then. “If we were to file another lawsuit, it would probably take until 2018 anyway,” noted Engelman Lado.

“Meanwhile, lead is spewing into the air,” she added. The only other countries that still allow the use of leaded aviation fuel are Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, and Yemen.

“Meanwhile, lead is spewing into the air.”

An EPA spokeswoman said in an email, “The EPA is actively engaged in investigating whether lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. We currently plan to issue a proposed endangerment finding in 2017 which will undergo public notice and comment and we plan to issue a final determination in 2018.”

Advocates argue that it will take EPA action to eliminate this source of lead. Airports can start offering unleaded fuel as an alternative: It costs less, and three-quarters of all piston-engine aircraft can begin using it immediately. But it’s not readily available. “There’s just a lack of will to actually make this available at airports,” Keever said. “If there’s no movement on the regulatory side, there’s absolutely no movement on the use side.”

So many airplanes still use leaded fuel. “It is the EPA that has the responsibility and the authority to trigger the regulatory process,” Engelman Lado said. “If you don’t have a deadline” to switch over to unleaded fuel, she added, “it can literally go on forever.”

In the meantime, local activists have been tackling the issue on their own. Community members often begin battling their municipal airports over noise issues, only to realize that they may be getting exposed to lead.

Lisa Sandbank wasn’t looking for a fight with her local airport. In fact, when she moved to Sunset Park in California in 2011, she and her boyfriend were trying to stay as far away from the Santa Monica airport as possible.

But soon annoyances from the airport began to add up, “like a dripping faucet,” she said. So she decided to get involved with the fight against the airport, eventually taking leadership of a group that began as just a Facebook page.

In Santa Monica, Sandbank noted that she’s gone to community meetings in areas most impacted by the airport’s emissions and seen rooms full of people struggling with health issues. “They came in on ventilators, a weird proportion had neurological issues, there were people in wheelchairs,” she said. “It was just saddening.”

Sandbank herself has made some changes to avoid the toxin. One of the reasons she moved to her new house in Sunset Park was to be able to garden, but there’s not much she’ll grow in them anymore. “I don’t really grow the leafy greens,” she said, because she’s afraid those plants will soak up lead. “I’ve stopped growing kale and spinach and lettuce, and we’re just sticking with the orange and the tomatoes.”

Children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning, and Sandbank worries that her neighbors are being impacted. “My neighbors who have children play in the areas affected by lead,” she noted. Meanwhile, there are schools, playgrounds, and parks all in the area that would be exposed to lead emissions.

“My neighbors who have children play in the areas affected by lead.”

Miki Barnes has been trying to get lead out of her community’s air since 2005. Hillsboro ranks at number 21 in the nation for lead emissions.

“We know we’ve got a lead problem, but we can’t seem to get the state to monitor,” she said.

Her group, Oregon Aviation Watch, would like to see mandated health monitoring, as well as living near the airport to be considered a risk factor for lead poisoning when people are being treated by doctors. She’s also met with state legislators about introducing legislation that would require Oregon airports to offer nonleaded fuel and gradually phase out leaded gas. But the larger goal is to get all piston engine flight training aircraft prohibited.

Despite how health- and environment-conscious Portland residents are, including around the issue of lead poisoning, Barnes doesn’t think many know about avgas. “The focus is not on airports,” she said. “We’re struggling to tie that in.”