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EPA issues warning about major health crisis across US: 'The science is clear'

"Propose new standards to protect all communities."

"Propose new standards to protect all communities."

Photo Credit: iStock

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in October that pollution from leaded fuel, which is still used in hundreds of thousands of airplanes, is a major public health concern.

What's happening?

Though there has been a 99% decline in airborne lead levels in the United States since 1980 (thanks to regulatory policies), the EPA noted that leaded gas is still used in aviation, according to Interesting Engineering.

In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration said that more than 220,000 smaller piston-engine airplanes, which typically hold two to 10 people each, still use this fuel type.

Though these planes are small, the health impact they make is big.

"The science is clear: exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects in children," EPA administrator Michael S. Regan stated in a news release on the organization's website. "Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions in our air."

Why is lead fuel pollution from aircraft concerning?

Aircraft that use leaded fuel can pollute nearby communities, according to the EPA.

"Lead exposure can have harmful effects on cognitive function, including reduced IQ, decreased academic performance, as well as increased risk for additional health concerns," the release said.

U.S. House of Representatives members also pointed to environmental justice concerns.

"Communities near general aviation airports — like Reid-Hillview Airport in my district — experience disproportionate exposure to lead from leaded aviation fuel emissions," House Science, Space, and Technology Committee ranking member Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said in the EPA release.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) added: "Communities where general aviation airports are located –– including in East San Jose –– have suffered from lead exposure and pollution for years. Children living near the Reid-Hillview Airport, which has a flight path over my district, have been found to have lead in their blood."

Lead isn't the only source of dangerous air pollution. 

For one, oil and gas production "resulted in 410,000 asthma exacerbations, 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma, and 7,500 excess deaths" in 2016, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research: Health. This cost $77 billion in total health impacts.

You can help reduce pollution –– while saving money and your health in the process –– by choosing more environmentally-friendly transportation options, including public transit, your two feet, an electric vehicle, or a bike.

What's being done about leaded fuel pollution from aircraft?

The EPA's final determination on lead pollution from aircraft will help the Biden-Harris administration "move forward in the process to propose new standards to protect all communities from the serious threat of lead pollution from aircraft," according to Regan's statement in the EPA release. 

Meanwhile, the EPA and FAA have already started considering possible regulatory options.

According to Interesting Engineering, "Even though the recent EPA declaration may not have immediate legal significance, it paves the way for a change to small aircraft gasoline that is lead-free in the future."

Limited economically viable lead-free options exist, per the report. A 100-octane unleaded fuel is one alternative and has been authorized by the FAA, but it is not readily available. So far, 35 airports offer lower-octane fuel, and there are plans to make it accessible at more locations.

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