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A Toxics-Free Future


Lead in aviation fuel threatens public health

(op-ed from the Anchorage Daily News)

In Alaska, piston-engine aircraft are a lifeline, connecting communities with medicine, food, fuel and other resources. They are also often a significant source of lead, a toxic metal with no safe level of exposure. Our state and federal elected officials have claimed that leaded aviation gasoline — commonly called avgas — is essential to safe flying in Alaska, even as tens of thousands of Alaskans are exposed to lead emissions from these aircraft. But there is now a new unleaded fuel approved for use in piston-engine aircraft, which can be used without changing the aircraft. Our representatives should recognize this new reality: There is a safe, economical unleaded alternative to toxic avgas. However, rather than doing so, our representatives are trying to lock in leaded avgas — and the resulting lead pollution — for years.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft using leaded avgas contribute to harmful air pollution. This “endangerment finding” followed years of research showing that living near airports where these aircraft fly is associated with higher blood lead levels than living further away. This is significant because even extremely low levels of lead are associated with serious and irreversible health effects such as harm to children’s developing brains and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease in adults. And tens of thousands of Alaskans live within 1,500 feet of an airport, half of whom are Alaska Natives. Every time a piston-engine aircraft takes off or lands at one of Alaska’s airports, nearby residents are exposed to toxic lead emissions.

With so many Alaskans put in harm’s way during aircraft operations, we might expect that our elected officials would push for the use of an unleaded alternative. Instead, they are seeking to entrench leaded avgas by trying to undo EPA’s endangerment finding in Congress and to exempt Alaska from actions that could eliminate harmful lead emissions. Most recently, the Alaska House of Representatives called on the federal government to create a decade-long exemption from regulation of leaded avgas for Alaska. In support of this resolution, the sponsors put out a statement full of falsehoods, including that “the Environmental Protection Agency is mandating the cessation of leaded aviation fuel by 2030,” that there is a “lack of approved alternative fuels,” and that “many small piston engine aircraft could face costs of up to $100,000 per unit.”

Each of these assertions is patently false, and it is extremely disappointing that our representatives are choosing to lie to the Alaskan public in pursuit of policies that would continue to expose Alaskans to a toxic chemical. EPA has not regulated leaded avgas and has not even released a timeline for that action (though it eventually will have to). And even if EPA were to regulate leaded avgas, planes could still fly — more than a million pounds of an unleaded fuel that the Federal Aviation Administration has approved have already been produced. This fuel can be used in all piston-engine aircraft models and is drop-in ready, meaning that no changes are needed to the aircraft to use it. And another manufacturer expects to roll out another drop-in unleaded replacement fuel “within months.” Put simply, the expensive overhaul that our representatives are claiming does not exist.

Our elected officials have created a false narrative that keeping leaded avgas around is necessary to avoid disruptions in service and expensive upgrades to aircraft. Instead of letting lead contaminate our air, water and food for years to come, they should be focusing their energy on protecting Alaskans’ health and critical transportation infrastructure by facilitating the use of unleaded avgas.

Samarys Seguinot Medina Ph.D. MSEM, is environmental health director for Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Vi Pangunnaaq Waghiyi is a Yupik grandmother, member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, from Sivuqaq, Alaska, and environmental justice director for Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Pamela Miller, MS, is executive director and senior scientist for Alaska Community Action on Toxics.