This letter features reporting from “Do You Live Close Enough to a Small U.S. Airport To Have Lead Exposure? Check Our Maps” by Michael Coren, a Pulitzer Center reporting project

Dear Senator Thom Tillis, 

Lead isn’t a problem anymore, right? That is exactly what I thought until I read the Pulitzer Center article titled “Do You Live Close Enough to a Small U.S. Airport To Have Lead Exposure? Check Our Maps” by Michael Coren. The article explains that small piston-powered aircraft are spewing over 400 tons of lead pollution into the air that we breathe each year. These aircraft burn fuel containing tetraethyl lead, an additive used to boost octane levels and keep the engines running smoothly. While this additive keeps the engines from breaking, it also has the power to sicken and lower the IQ of 360,000 children and toddlers who live near small airports. According to the CDC, lead causes “anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage.” Lead can also hurt unborn babies and put children at a higher risk of having developmental disabilities or conditions such as ADHD. Not only this, but people who live near airports tend to be low income, so they don't have the option to move away or seek expensive medical treatment. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knows this, and yet they still haven’t banned aviation gas containing dangerous tetraethyl lead.

According to the FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuel Initiative (PAFI), while ground based transportation fuel has been unleaded for the past 25 years, airplane fuel has been “largely unchanged for seventy years.” The Pulitzer Center article focuses on the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California. Santa Clara County was one of the first (and only) places to ban the sale of leaded fuel due to the startling statistics about the harm it causes. On the official county website it states that, “leaded aviation fuel contributed to significantly increased blood lead levels for those within a half-mile of the facility.”

Although the article focuses on California, leaded fuel affects the entire United States, including North Carolina. Here in my hometown of Asheville, we have a regional airport near a busy part of town. Activities such as the annual fair happen often at the WNC Agricultural Center, which is located just across from the airport. Furthermore, many people live in the surrounding area. The airport sells 100LL fuel (low lead aviation gas), and its runway is used by piston-powered, lead-spewing planes. Living in that part of town should be just as safe as living anywhere else, but because of the tetraethyl lead, it’s not. According to the Pulitzer Center article, “The results were unequivocal: the closer a child lived to the airport, the higher the lead levels, even after accounting for other variables.” It is appalling that changing aviation fuel has not been a first priority for the FAA, given the unmistakably terrible effects of lead on children.

However grim the situation may seem, there are solutions. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed an idea called “endangerment finding” which would involve working with the FAA to get rid of leaded aviation gas. It is hard for a new fuel to be approved by the FAA, but it can be done through a two-step testing program. However, we could skip the testing phase because there is an alternative fuel to leaded aviation gas already in production called UL94. UL94 is a hydrocarbon-based, unleaded airplane fuel that can be used in most piston-powered engines. Not only is it lead-free, but it has less of an impact on the environment and on aircraft engines.

Although the switch would have a slight monetary cost, the ethical cost of using leaded fuel is much higher. Switching to UL94 would save 360,000 children from potential lead poisoning so that they can grow up to have rich and fulfilling lives. For the future of America’s children, I urge you to consider banning leaded aviation gas from our country’s airports in favor of UL94, thereby ensuring that all citizens are protected from the last major source of lead pollution in our nation. 


Harper Mitchell

Harper Mitchell is an 8th grader at Francine Delany New School for Children in Asheville, North Carolina. She has always been drawn to issues relating to urban design and technology and dreams of becoming an architect one day. In her free time, she participates in a musical theater company and loves to read, specifically fiction and magical realism. She hopes to one day design safe and affordable housing that supports the needs of low-income families while also being neutral or beneficial to the environment.

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