Editorial: Small aircraft shouldn’t be allowed to keep spewing toxic lead into communities

A small plane against a cloudy sky
A small plane takes off from the Long Beach Airport under heavy clouds. The airport has some of the highest lead emissions in the nation, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Lead was phased out of gasoline sold for cars and trucks decades ago. But that brain-damaging fuel additive used to prevent engine knock is still being spewed into the air across the nation — including Southern California — by small aircraft that use leaded fuel.

For two decades, community groups and environmentalists have been pushing federal regulators to ban leaded aviation fuel that is used by about 170,000 small piston-engine planes, single and twin-engine planes that typically carry between two and 10 passengers. Aviation gasoline, or avgas, is the only transportation fuel that still uses lead and is the nation’s largest single source of airborne lead emissions, responsible for about 70% of the total.

After years of inaction, federal regulators are now finally poised to start eliminating this dangerous pollutant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week issued an important finding that aircraft that use leaded fuel “cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” This action now obligates the EPA to adopt emissions standards while the Federal Aviation Administration develops standards for aircraft fuel.


General Motors’ agreement to include autoworkers in battery manufacturing shows climate action to electrify the economy doesn’t have to mean abandoning workers.

Oct. 12, 2023

This is very good news, though it should have happened long ago given mounting evidence of elevated blood lead levels of people who live in communities near general aviation airports. There is no safe level of exposure for this powerful neurotoxin. Lead contamination poses the greatest risks to young children, who can suffer irreversible behavioral, cognitive and developmental problems, including loss of IQ, from even small amounts of lead, which is emitted in tiny particles in aircraft exhaust and can also be deposited in the soil.

The Federal Aviation Administration last year started working with the aviation industry toward a goal of ending the use of leaded fuel by 2030, but adopting regulations and standards will turn what’s currently an aspiration into a true obligation. Federal officials don’t yet have a timeline for how soon they expect to propose emissions rules, but it’s important that they work to phase out leaded fuel quickly.

More than 5 million Americans live within 500 meters, or about 1,600 feet, of an airport, according to a 2020 EPA analysis, and studies have found higher blood lead levels among children who live or go to school near airports.

Aircraft pollution is especially bad in California, which has some of the airports with the nation’s highest reported lead emissions. Long Beach Airport ranks No. 2 in lead pollution, and Van Nuys Airport is No. 7, according to an analysis of EPA data by the group Earthjustice. John Wayne Airport, Chino Airport, Riverside Municipal Airport and Torrance Municipal Airport-Zamperini Field are also high up on the list.

This is also a matter of environmental justice. Communities near airports tend to have higher proportions of people of color and low-income residents than areas that are more distant. Many of these communities are among those with the highest lead pollution.

California’s oil industry has launched a PR campaign to exploit the economic anxieties of the state’s large Latino community to fight vehicle electrification and other pollution-cutting policies.

Oct. 20, 2023

Fortunately, technology is no longer much of a barrier. The FAA has already approved safer, unleaded fuels for piston-engine aircraft. And while about 35 airports nationwide already provide unleaded fuel, much more needs to happen to scale up production and distribution and make higher-octane alternatives widely available.


There are aviation industry concerns about how to safely phase out lead. The average piston-engine aircraft still flying is more than 45 years old, and federal rules should address those safety concerns in addition to protecting public health from poisonous emissions.

Metro now has 40 miles of bus lanes in Los Angeles, with plans to reach 100 miles in the next few years. Getting buses out of traffic make service faster, more reliable and better for riders.

Oct. 19, 2023

Some local governments have chosen not to wait for federal regulators to address this public health hazard. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted last year to stop selling leaded aviation fuel at county airports after commissioning a study that linked its use to elevated blood lead levels in children living near Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose. Long Beach is working on a plan to reduce lead pollution from planes at its city-owned airport, but the City Council has stopped short of pursuing an outright ban on leaded fuel.

These developments are a good start, but a patchwork of local laws is no substitute for a strong, nationwide ban with clear and enforceable deadlines.

Regulators eliminated lead from paint and gasoline because it was clear decades ago that it is so dangerous we could not keep allowing it to pollute our communities and jeopardize children’s health. Those bans have been some of the greatest public health success stories ever, reducing the concentration of lead in children’s blood by more than 90% and yielding trillions of dollars in health and social benefits, including health savings, higher IQ and lower crime.

It’s time for officials to act again, remove leaded fuel from the aviation system and replace it with alternatives that don’t pollute neighborhoods and put children’s health at risk.