KUOW’s John Ryan used federal data and a few key sources to delve deep into issues surrounding one of the few remaining sources of airborne lead in the United States, a leaded aviation fuel known as “avgas.” In the process, he reveals damage that even low levels of lead exposure could be doing to children.
Avgas accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s liquid fuel use. Yet enough piston–engine planes fly enough miles on avgas to belch out half of all the lead going into the nation’s air.
Lead paint in old buildings remains a bigger threat, but even low levels of childhood exposure, one source tells Ryan, can manifest itself in “Decreases in IQ, changes in test scores, changes in attention, hearing threshold, all sorts of things like that.”
Earlier this month (January), an expert panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the levels of lead in children that should alarm parents or doctors. Researchers have yet to find any level of lead exposure that doesn’t cause harm.
Michael Kosnett, a medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado, told Ryan, “In any one child, it’s not something that’s going to necessarily cause them to display any kind of signs and symptoms. But if you can lower the lead exposure of a population of children, you’re going to give that population more of an opportunity to have gifted children and to have children who have higher IQs, and that’s certainly a desirable public health goal.”
Marie Lynn Miranda, an environmental health scientist and a dean at the University of Michigan, points out that “Living close to an airport can increase your blood lead level anywhere from 2 to 4 percent,” acknowledging that is a small amount but that evidence indicates even small amounts of lead are bad. She also notes that “lead is especially a problem for the low–income families that are most likely to live near airports.”
Pilots who still use avgas say their businesses would be dead in the water if they couldn’t get the leaded fuel, an argument Ryan contrasts with quotes from a Europe-based lead-free avgas producer, who sells it for 40 cents less a gallon, but hasn’t been able to break into the U.S. market “Because no one thinks that there will be demand for an unleaded–grade aviation gasoline.”
The federal database Ryan used, The National Emissions Inventory, is posted online by the EPA.