After Decades of Delay, Possible Progress to Get the Lead Out of U.S. Aviation Fuel

Tetraethyl lead warning, gas pump (copied from wiki)An FAA Press Release on July 10, 2014 announced that FAA has received nine candidate lead-free fuel formulations to soon be evaluated. This is part of a decades-delayed program to phase out dangerous lead that is still being added to aviation fuels. Here’s an excerpt from FAA’s Press Release…

“We’re committed to getting harmful lead out of general aviation fuel. This work will benefit the environment and provide a safe and available fuel for our general aviation community.”

– Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx

The Press Release goes on to note that “…there are approximately 167,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States using leaded aviation gasoline…,” and, “…it is the only remaining transportation fuel in the United States that contains the addition of lead, a toxic substance….”

The health hazards of lead have been known for centuries. Lead poisoning is considered to have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. The soft metal is smelted and easily worked at low temperatures, creating air and soil pollutants throughout Roman communities. The Roman water system was plumbed using lead pipes. Lead was used in paints, and a lead compound was even used to sweeten the wine of affluent Romans. In its modern form, as the fuel additive tetraethyl lead, the compound is absorbed through skin. Human ingestion of lead causes loss of brain function, headaches, damage to organs, neurovascular and cardiovascular disorders, and even gout.

Despite these known health hazards, tetraethyl lead became a common gasoline additive during the explosive rise of the automotive industry in the 1920’s. It boosted octane ratings and enabled improved engine designs. The health impacts were simply ignored. After a few decades of robust ignorance, a renewed recognition of the health hazards led the U.S. Congress to pass laws to remove lead. The first such laws were passed four decades ago. With subsequent laws, lead was completely phased out of automotive fuels more than two decades ago. But, the use of lead in U.S. aviation has persisted, effectively grandfathered in by FAA’s failure to phase it out. Tens of thousands of new GA engines have been manufactured, and put on new U.S. GA aircraft designs, all relying on the continued use of leaded aviation fuels … decades after lead was outlawed from other transportation modes.

And who is most impacted by this FAA delay?

Children are extremely susceptible. Those who live near airports where intensive flight training happens, or where hundreds of small GA aircraft still use leaded aviation fuel, are being exposed to lead that has accumulated for decades in neighborhood soils and in the air they breathe. Making things even worse, FAA and the airport authority are commonly beholden to the airport tenants, including businesses like the flight schools, and do everything they can to obscure any citizen concerns and obstruct any efforts to clean up the problem.

The aviation lead hazard exists at all GA airports, but is particularly intense at about 50-100 mostly GA airports. Here are links to twelve of the most impacted airports: