Don’t get me wrong. Public health, as far as I’m concerned, unquestionably trumps my near-obsessive desire to burn holes in the sky, and I quibble not at all with scientific research that has indisputably shown lead to be a public hazard. Chronic exposure can cause anemia, fatigue, IQ loss, nerve damage, and even death. But is the exhaust from my airplane’s 180‑horsepower engine really that significant a national health threat when compared to environmental concerns like, say, coal-fired power plants or automobile-generated greenhouse gases?
Of all transportation fuel burned in the United States, avgas accounts for only about 0.1 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and its use is steadily declining, along with the public’s interest in general aviation itself. In 1983, GAMA figures show, U.S. refineries delivered 418,000 gallons of avgas per day. By 2009, the most recent figures available, deliveries were down to 150,000 gallons daily.
Overall lead emissions in the United States, meanwhile, are a mere fraction of what they were before the Clean Air Act. Forty-three years ago, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 tons of microscopic lead particles were dispersed annually into the skies over the United States. Today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s less than 1,000 tons, of which about half is generated by piston-powered aircraft. That’s 500 tons, which to me doesn’t seem like very much, considering that every year, U.S. industrial operations produce nearly 100 million tons of air pollutants like benzene, sulfur dioxide, and mercury.
Such arguments carry little weight among environmentalists. “There is no safe level when it comes to lead,” says Marcie Keever, a program director at Friends of the Earth, an activist group that sued the EPA last year, demanding lead emissions from aircraft be regulated. “This is an issue of extreme concern when it comes to the impact it has on people, especially children.” Friends of the Earth cites an EPA estimate that three million children attend schools near the 22,000 airports where leaded avgas is likely to be used.
The EPA has said it intends to study the issue for perhaps as long as another two years while monitoring lead emissions at 15 small airports, including California’s Palo Alto, Nantucket Memorial in Massachusetts, and Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska. If the agency finds that those living nearby are at risk from aircraft-emitted lead, it will work with the FAA to eventually outlaw leaded avgas.
No one can say how long the outlawing process will take—some experts estimate 10 years or more—but that hasn’t stopped the general aviation community from fearing that a bad storm is blowing in.
Walter Desrosier, GAMA’s vice president for engineering and maintenance, says his organization, which represents most of the world’s leading manufacturers of general aviation aircraft, is concerned about the economic havoc any abrupt switch in fuels might spawn. An estimated 1.25 million Americans depend on general aviation for their livelihoods.
“This has got to be done in such a way that any transition is planned methodically,” says Desrosier, “so that we don’t have any unforeseen economic consequences.”
Robert Hackman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, whose 385,000 members constitute the nation’s largest aviation advocacy group, points out that the plight over fuel has already disrupted general aviation. Though hard data is difficult to come by, says Hackman, anecdotal evidence suggests that some prospective customers are balking at buying aircraft with avgas-reliant engines that may be banned or require potentially costly redesign.
“It’s further depressing an already depressed market,” he says.