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Small Airplanes A Major Source Of Lead Pollution

John Ryan

The United States banned leaded gasoline in 1995. But thousands of airplanes in Washington state still run on leaded fuel — and send toxic lead into the air when they do. KUOW's John Ryan reports.


Most of the fuel burned by airplanes in this state is jet fuel. Jet exhaust has lots of pollutants, but it doesn't have lead.

But most small planes burn a leaded fuel known as "avgas." Half of all the lead pollution in America's air comes from those planes.

KUOW has learned that Washington state ranks fifth in the country for airplane lead emissions.

The state's biggest source is Boeing Field in Seattle. The Environmental Protection Agency says small planes taking off and landing at Boeing Field release more than half a ton of lead into the air each year.

Nationwide, there's a lot less lead in the air than there was in decades past. But the heavy metal is so toxic that health researchers are concerned about even the smallest amounts.

Marie Lynn Miranda with the University of Michigan says children living near airports have more lead in their blood than other children.

Miranda: "Anything that we can do to drive down children's exposure to this substance that we know is bad for them is something that we as a country should be pursuing."

Richey: "Without avgas, or an avgas substitute, we would simply be out of business."

Rob Richey is with Kenmore Air. Most of the Kenmore float planes you see taking off from Lake Union run on leaded fuel.

He says he'd welcome unleaded fuel, but he's concerned that big refiners won't bother to make it for such a specialty market.

Avgas is only used by small planes like crop dusters, floatplanes and the two–seaters that pilots learn to fly in.

Unleaded aviation fuel is available in Europe and Japan, but not in North America.

Under pressure from environmentalists, the EPA has started monitoring lead emissions at 15 airports nationwide.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

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