A leading environmental group wants swift federal action on leaded aviation fuel used by small airplanes and some helicopters.
Friends of the Earth released a new report on the issue, noting that leaded aviation fuel, or "avgas," accounts for 50 percent of all airborne lead emissions.
Lead is a highly toxic metal known to adversely affect neurological development.
"While lead has been banned or limited in consumer products, building materials and automotive gasoline, no action to date has been taken to address the largest source of lead emissions into the air -- leaded aviation fuel," reads the Friends of the Earth's report, prepared by the Center for Environmental Health.
Piston-engine, general aviation aircraft use leaded fuel at nearly 20,000 U.S. airport facilities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some 16 million people live and three million children attend school near airports with lead-emitting aircraft.
Leaded avgas is used because it "raises fuel octane and prevents engine knock and other wear in high-performance engines," according to the Friends of the Earth.
"Over 75 percent of piston-engine, general aviation aircraft can run on unleaded automotive fuel ('mogas') that is ethanol free," the report reads. "These planes can easily switch to unleaded fuel if they obtain the necessary permit and if unleaded avgas is made available at more airports. However, the 25 percent of aircraft that do require high-octane, leaded fuel are larger aircraft that fly longer distances and therefore consume the majority of all avgas."
The Friends of the Earth is marking 10 years since it first petitioned the EPA in 2006 to launch a rulemaking investigation into air emissions from leaded aviation fuel.
The EPA, which formally responded to the green group's petition in 2012, is now working on an "endangerment determination" regarding aircraft lead emissions.
EPA officials are "evaluating the impact of lead emissions from aircraft using leaded aviation gasoline in order to make a determination regarding whether aircraft lead emissions cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare," according to a posting on the federal agency's website.
A proposed endangerment determination is expected from the EPA in 2017. Finalization of the endangerment finding is planned for 2018 after a public comment period.
The Friends of the Earth, which has been raising awareness about leaded aviation fuel since 2003, wants the EPA to issue its endangerment determination as soon as possible. After the finding is released, the EPA and Federal Aviation Administration should "facilitate the phase-out of leaded avgas over a reasonably prompt timeframe," the green group argues.
"We've been trying to get the EPA to remove lead from avgas since we discovered the fact in 2003," said Friends of the Earth's legal director Marcie Keever. "Given the widespread public understanding of the grave health effects of lead exposure, it is appalling that this toxic pollution stream continues to harm our communities. We urge the EPA to take immediate action to curb the single largest source of lead emissions in the (United States) today."
Among other recommendations, the environmental organization says the federal government should do more to increase awareness about and expand access to unleaded aviation fuel and offer incentives to airports that phase out leaded fuel or partner with unleaded fuel suppliers.
"A transition to unleaded fuel is foreseeable, as 75 percent of general aviation aircraft could make the change immediately and would save money in the long run," the report reads. The EPA and FAA "must collaborate with airports and the general aviation community to facilitate an efficient, prompt transition to unleaded fuel."
Industry firms, meanwhile, are working with the FAA to develop a new unleaded avgas that can be used across the general aviation fleet. The government-industry partnership is called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI).
The program, now in its second phase, is testing two unleaded general aviation fuels from Shell and Swift Fuels. The testing program's second phase was announced in March and will conclude in 2018.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is among PAFI's partner groups.
"It's important for general aviation to be ready to move away from leaded fuel, and (the) announcement that two fuels have been selected for further testing is another key step down that path," AOPA's David Oord said in response to the FAA's March announcement. "The program is on track and the candidate fuels are promising, which is good news for (general aviation)."
Image: Friends of the Earth