Leaded avgas, or aviation gasoline, is the largest source of airborne lead pollution in the US. Each year, as many as 170,000 small aircraft burn leaded fuel at the country's 13,000 regional airports. Much of this lead ends up being absorbed into the bloodstreams of some of the estimated 5 million people living near airports—disproportionately communities of color—including more than 363,000 children.
High blood lead levels in children are devastating, causing permanent IQ loss, behavioral problems, and persistent reductions in income and educational achievement. "We now know there is no safe level of lead in the human body,” says Philip Landrigan, a leading epidemiologist, and pediatrician.
Yet government agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have refused to regulate leaded avgas as a serious health risk (despite affirming lead's toxicity in other sources). Even an FAA program to fast-track a replacement fuel has failed to produce a substitute after 20 years, despite private firms offering alternatives to leaded avgas.
Cities and local governments, as well as the communities most affected by leaded avgas, are now mobilizing to eliminate leaded fuel and, in some cases, shut down the airports entirely. After lead poisoned or killed thousands of American children and adults in the 20th century, the US is struggling to close the last chapter on this lethal neurotoxin.