By Gary Keller
According to data from the EPA's National Emissions Inventory (NEI), general aviation (GA) piston-driven aircraft are responsible for 63 percent of all new lead emissions in the U.S. each year, amounting to an annual amount of 450 tons of discharged lead.
From that same database, it's reported that California has by far the most discharged lead of any state with 50 tons per year. Of 3,143 counties and county equivalents in the U.S., San Diego County is the third most lead-polluted county in the nation, just behind L.A. County at number two, with lead emissions from general aviation aircraft at 2.25 tons. Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport and Gillespie Field account for over half of San Diego County's lead emissions.
Until last year, there wasn't a single public health department in the nation that recognized piston-driven general aviation aircraft as a source of lead emissions, but that recently changed when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has long maintained there is no "safe" level of lead in the body, added general aviation aircraft as a source of lead in the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention section of their website.
Also in 2019 the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) updated its standard care guidelines on childhood lead poisoning to include not only general aviation aircraft as sources of lead, but to advise parents and schools that children "not play near or spend time near these facilities."
Nevertheless, despite the slow, bureaucratic reaction of public health outlets, safer and more effective unleaded aviation fuel that can be used by two-thirds of general aviation airplanes has been on the market for several years, but many municipal airports won't supply it, and many pilots refuse to use it.
Particularly galling to California's lead poisoning prevention component of the CDPH is a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention fee that businesses and polluters responsible for lead emissions pay into. Aircraft operators are expect from it. Established in 1993, the fund is intended to support "health care referrals, environmental assessments, and educational activities necessary to reduce a child's exposure to lead and the consequences of the exposure."
While lead smelting plants are responsible for one ton of lead emissions per year in California, general aviation accounts for 50 times that number. All of these aircraft are exempt from paying into the fund because they are federally regulated. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has said there is nothing that they can do about it. Other states that have initiated a similar fee structure have found themselves stymied from the collection of funds from general aviation aircraf. In essence, the federal government gives local governments money via the EPA to eradicate old paint from pre-1978 housing, even as they give a "pass" to the 450 tons of NEW emissions from GA aircraft. This creates an exercise in futility.
At last count, San Diego County is home to 50 flight schools. All of these schools utilize aircraft that are powered by leaded AvGas, and they are also almost entirely attended by students who come to San Diego to take advantage of the region's abundant flight school opportunities in our flight-friendly climate. While these students may only live in San Diego for the short time they're attending flight school, they are forever polluting our region with lead emissions sanctioned by the federal government. Thus far, only the CDC and the California Department of Public Health are willing to warn residents and the public about it.
And then there's the environmental noise pollution that goes with it.
Gary Keller is a retired Chula Vista firefighter and long-time citizen activist on the negative impacts of general aviation in communities, and specifically the effects of lead pollution from aircraft. Photo by Akihito Kato © 2010
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