Finally, finally... the FAA just approved an unleaded fuel for small aircraft. Yup, for all these years that other vehicles had switched to unleaded gas, small aircraft had no unleaded alternative. (Jet aircraft used for commercial transport do not use fuel containing lead.)
Unleaded gas was introduced in the United States in the 1970s, and this was because it was apparent the lead in gas was causing health problems (e.g., lower IQ in children, neurological effects, kidney damage). Leaded gas was completely phased out in on-road vehicles as of January 1, 1996 (with the passage of the Clean Air Act).
But even now, leaded fuel still fuels about 170,000 piston-engine airplanes and helicopters, typically small aircraft that carry 2-10 passengers. Jet aircraft used for commercial transport do not operate on a fuel containing lead. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), emissions of lead from aircraft using leaded aviation gas (avgas) makes up the largest remaining "source of lead emissions to air in the U.S."
This is air pollution! It is especially problematic for people living, working, or attending school near airports. Tiny lead particles (from the air) land near the airports, and can even be seen as a layer of "grey film" coating cars and other surfaces on everything near the airports.
Excerpts from Axios: Small airplanes are finally switching to unleaded fuel
Cessnas, Pipers and other small airplanes — now the largest U.S. lead emitters — are on the verge of a historic shift to unleaded fuel.
Why it matters: Lead exposure has been linked to a host of health and developmental issues.
- Historic exposure to lead, mostly from car exhaust, lowered the IQ of about half the U.S. population, per one recent study.
Compared to cars, small airplanes account for a fraction of total emissions. Yet lead's health risks are frequently cited by people seeking to close local airports, which often serve as training grounds for would-be professional pilots — and there's a shortage of those.
- U.S. regulators banned the use of leaded gasoline in passenger cars in 1996, but aircraft were exempt because there was no "operationally safe, suitable replacement," per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
What's happening: The FAA recently approved just such a replacement, developed by General Aviation Modifications, Inc. (GAMI), for use across the general aviation fleet — without any major, potentially cost-prohibitive aircraft or engine modifications.
- GAMI is scaling up production of the fuel, called G100UL, by licensing production and distribution.
- G100UL may first show up at airports in California, where at least one county has banned leaded aviation fuel despite a lack of existing universal alternatives.
- Another company, Swift Fuels, is also developing unleaded aviation fuels.