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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Makes Official Determination on Dangers of Leaded Aviation Fuel

The finding is a step toward a national ban, and stems from a push led by Santa Clara County and environmental organizations following the publication of a report on lead levels in children near Reid-Hillview Airport

A fueling truck containing unleaded aviation fuel is parked near the control tower at Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif.— After a push for action led by Santa Clara County and a host of environmental organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday announced it has officially determined that emissions from aircraft using leaded gasoline pose a public health threat – a major step toward a national ban on the fuel.

County officials celebrated the EPA action and urged the agency to work diligently with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to best facilitate a switch to unleaded aviation fuel for the 170,000 piston-powered aircraft across the country – similar to what was accomplished for motor vehicles 25 years ago.

“Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the EPA finally made the endangerment finding after years of advocacy by Earthjustice and other organizations,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “This was in part influenced by a comprehensive, scientific study Santa Clara County commissioned in 2021 on lead exposure risks for children living in the area around Reid-Hillview Airport.” 

That study showed that children living near the airport had significantly higher levels of lead in their blood, and prompted the County of Santa Clara to end sales of leaded fuel at its two airports (Reid Hillview and San Martin) on January 1, 2022.  The EPA cited the study in support of its endangerment finding.

While the EPA’s final endangerment finding does not restrict the availability of leaded fuel, it obligates the agency and the Federal Aviation Administration to create regulatory standards for lead emissions. That means the Biden Administration can move forward on the path toward ultimately eliminating leaded aviation fuel. 

County officials urged the EPA and FAA to expedite the process as much as possible to stop continued harm in communities across the nation, and pointed toward a clause in the pending FAA reauthorization legislation that requires airports to continue to provide leaded avgas. More than 100 community groups and organizations have called on Congress to remove this provision.

“We are grateful for this next key step and while there’s agreement that leaded fuel must be phased out, the FAA reauthorization bills pending before Congress impede airports from eliminating leaded fuel,” said County Executive James R. Williams. “We need to see immediate action among lawmakers to remove this language from the FAA Reauthorization Act.”

Leaded aviation fuel – the only transportation fuel not currently regulated by the EPA – accounts for 70% of the lead released into the air. Environmentalists have been petitioning the EPA to take such an action for over 15 years. 

Lead emissions from aviation fuel affect hundreds of communities across the nation and locally the County lead study found 13,000 children living near Reid-Hillview were adversely affected by lead pollution from aircraft using the facility. Children living downwind of the airport had blood lead level increases on par with those detected during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan. During times of maximum aircraft traffic, children within a half mile of the airport had an increased blood lead level of .83 micrograms per deciliter – nearly twice that observed at the height of the Flint Water Crisis.

Nationwide, an estimated 4 million people live within 500 meters of the 20,000 airports used by 170,000 piston-engine aircraft that continue to use leaded aviation fuel. About 600 schools (K-12) are located in that same close range. Approximately 16 million people – including 3 million children – live within a kilometer of such facilities.

Health organizations agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood, and exposure to even a small amount of lead has a negative effect on cognitive ability and IQ, particularly in developing children, who absorb lead more efficiently than older children and adults.                                                                                           

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The County of Santa Clara government serves a diverse, multi-cultural population of 1.9 million residents in Santa Clara County, California, making it more populous than 14 states in the U.S. The County provides essential services to its residents, including public health protection, environmental stewardship, medical services through the County of Santa Clara Health System, child and adult protection services, homelessness prevention and solutions, roads, park services, libraries, emergency response to disasters, protection of minority communities and those under threat, access to a fair criminal justice system, and many other public benefits.

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Contact: Laurel Anderson / Eric Kurhi, Office of Communications and Public Affairs, 408-299-5119, [email protected]