Aviation emissions

The Issue

New Report!

Myths & Realities of Leaded Aviation Fuel

Read the full report

Read the executive summary

Read the press release

Read our blog: Giving up the lead ghost

Lead is a harmful and toxic chemical that causes a broad range of adverse health effects when absorbed by the body. These include damage to the central nervous system, cardiovascular function, kidneys, immune system and red blood cells. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, in part because they are more likely to ingest lead and in part because their developing bodies are more sensitive to the effects of lead. No amount of lead exposure is safe.

It has been 20 years since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the complete phase-out of lead in automobile gasoline. When finally closing the books on leaded auto gasoline in 1996, the EPA administrator recognized, “[t]he elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.” Despite this acknowledgement, general aviation aircraft fuel still contains lead and is the largest single source of lead emissions in the U.S.

Leaded aviation fuel (avgas) is primarily used in piston-engine aircraft, which typically fly in and out of small and municipal airports. The EPA has found that communities living near airports, children attending school near airports, and airplane pilots, student-trainees and passengers are all at risk of exposure to lead emissions from these aircraft. Sixteen million people live and 3 million children go to school near airports emitting lead from avgas.

What we've done

Friends of Earth began pushing the EPA to address the danger lead in aviation fuel poses to public health in 2003. We then filed a petition in 2006 urging the EPA to phase out lead in aviation fuel to protect human health and the environment. 

In 2010, the EPA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that fully acknowledged the serious health effects associated with exposure to lead and confirmed that avgas-fueled aircraft are the largest single source of airborne lead emissions in the country, comprising half of the nation’s total.

In 2012, Friends of the Earth filed litigation for the EPA's failure to respond to our 2006 petition asking for the regulation of lead emissions from general aviation under the Clean Air Act.

In 2014, we filed a petition asking the EPA to address harms caused by lead emissions generated by avgas. The EPA has yet to act to get the lead out of avgas despite litigation and a two petitions by Friends of the Earth, stating that it will make an endangerment finding by 2018.

What we're doing

Take action!

Graphic: Piston-engine plane expels fumes. Text: Tell the EPA: Act on toxic lead in our aviation fuel

Friends of the Earth continues our advocacy with the EPA to urge it to make a finding that lead endangers public health and we commissioned and launched the September 1, 2016 report entitled “Myths & Realities of Leaded Aviation Fuel.”

We are working to ensure that once the EPA makes an affirmative endangerment finding, the agency will then propose and issue emission standards.

Learn more


Myths & Realities of Leaded Aviation Fuel

The September 2016 report catalogues the current use of avgas by piston-engine aircraft (small propeller planes and some helicopters), the gaps in regulations and proposed policy solutions.

Figure 2 from the Duke University Study: Airports buffered at distances of 500 m, 1,000 m, 1,500 m, and 2,000 m in Wake County, North Carolina, plotted along with a jittered representation of the residential addresses of the children screened for blood lead.

A Geospatial Analysis of the Effects of Aviation Gasoline on Childhood Blood Lead Levels

The July 2011 study from Duke University published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives supports concerns about the severe and negative public health consequences caused by lead emissions from aircraft. The report found that children living close to airports where planes use leaded avgas have higher blood lead levels than other children.

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