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Lead Contamination Risk Near US Airports

Graham Marshall - Monday, February 18, 2013

The health effects of lead in petrol were known as early as the 1920s, but it took half a century before the US EPA moved to eliminate it in America.

Although the toxic metal lead is now banned from all petrol used in cars; you might be surprised to hear that it is still available for use in small private piston engine aircraft. 

The jet fuel used in commercial passenger planes, however, does not contain lead.

But about three-quarters of small private planes in the USA are still using leaded "Avgas".

And this Avgas is now the main source of lead emissions in America - even though  a lead-free alternative called "Mogas" is available for most piston engine aircraft,

So even though leaded Avgas emits only a small fraction of the lead once emitted by cars, it disproportionately affects people living near airports.

The US EPA estimates there are 16 million people living within one kilometer of airports where Avgas is available, and 3 million children attend schools in the same radius.

And Duke University researchers have shown that children who live near airports have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

But in the absence of regulatory pressure, there just isn't enough incentive to change this unfortunate situation.

So just three per cent of American airports supply lead-free Mogas as an alternative to leaded Avgas.

When leaded Avgas is eventually replaced, it will be another small step in the long road to eliminate lead contamination.

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