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Flying Lead: The Unfriendly Skies of New York

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PHOTO: 167-thousand piston-powered general aviation aircraft in the U.S. are using leaded aviation fuel. Courtesy: AOPA
PHOTO: 167-thousand piston-powered general aviation aircraft in the U.S. are using leaded aviation fuel. Courtesy: AOPA
September 27, 2012

NEW YORK - They got the lead out of automobile gas decades ago. But three-quarters of the nation's piston-driven airplanes – some 167-thousand – burn leaded aviation fuel, or “avgas,” making them the largest source of dangerous lead emissions from the transportation sector in the country. (Other major sources of lead in the air are ore and metals processing.)

The effect of the lead spewed by the small planes and private planes that comprise what's called general aviation can be harmful, especially for children, according to Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engleman Lado. She's pursuing a case in a federal court in Washington, D.C., aimed at getting the Environmental Protection Agency to crack down.

"There are 20,000 airports around the country, including here in New York, where lead is still used, and studies have shown that people who live near these airports - their kids are more likely to have heightened blood lead levels."

The problem is that no alternative exists for leaded avgas, which - according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - has to be used in some engines because otherwise they could fail, with safety consequences. The AOPA wants to find a solution but says ultimately it's a decision for the Federal Aviation Administration, not just the EPA.

Rob Hackman, AOPA vice president for regulatory affairs, says his group is working with the EPA and the Federal Aviation Administration on establishing a "realistic standard" to reduce lead emissions from general-aviation aircraft.

"It's not just a matter of 'we want fuel with a higher octane so we can go faster.' It's safety of flight so that our engines do not detonate and prematurely tear themselves apart at critical phases of flight."

Lado says one of New York's higher-emitting airports is Brookhaven, which - by 2008 numbers - emits half a ton of lead a year. She wants the EPA to rule the lead in avgas a public health threat.

"Leaded air pollution clearly endangers public health. The first step in this process is clearly at EPA's door, to recognize that and to initiate the regulatory process."

Hackman says - and others agree - that if you see a small plane flying overhead there's probably no reason to cover your nose and face and run inside. Altitude and wind are thought to disperse the harmful emissions.

"So unless you're standing right behind an aircraft engine with your nose right at the exhaust, you're talking about something that I think would be even difficult to measure from a bloodstream - that type of thing."

Nonetheless, great concern remains about populations near the nation's airports, and Lado anticipates that the EPA eventually will issue an endangerment finding, followed by Clean Air Act regulation of lead in avgas.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY