Use unleaded fuel at Bellingham International Airport - Salish Current

Residents around Bellingham International Airport face a health risk from aviation fuel lead, contends a commentator — and there are alternatives for some aircraft. The Cessna 172 Skyhawk, one of the most popular aircraft since it was first flown in 1955, can accommodate unleaded and low-lead fuels. (Rpetrescu07, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


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I live in the neighborhood next to the Bellingham International Airport (BIA) and over the years have expressed my concerns to the Port of Bellingham commissioners about the health dangers resulting from leaded aviation fuel in planes. Most recently, I’ve informed them of several developments:

Dr. David Schull of Western Washington University has received funding for a study measuring lead in the atmosphere around the airport that will begin this summer. Sampling the atmosphere will eliminate measurement of lead that might come from other sources.

During the last few years there has been extensive research by the scientific community and by the federal government about the controversial question of the continued use of leaded fuel by a segment of the aircraft industry. 

In an exhaustive study of the lead issue in aviation, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded:

 “ … that lead emissions from aircraft engines that operate on leaded fuel cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” 

Other findings from the EPA study relative to our issue include:

  • Residents in the vicinity of airports using leaded fuel are more likely to have a body burden of lead than those living at some distance from such airports. 
  • The lead particles exhausted from combustion are very small (about one micron); these lead particles readily combine with other organic molecules. These lead complexes have a residence time in the atmosphere of up to 24 hours.
  • Unsurprisingly, children are at particular risk from lead. Alderwood Elementary School is close to the airport and there is a good chance students are at heightened risk. Why take the risk?
To avoid dropping hazardous lead on residential areas, Bellingham International Airport recommends pilots fly out over the water before turning. Neighbors of the airport say that doesn’t always happen. (Sadie Fick / Salish Current illustration)

The EPA study clearly indicates that the residents around the airport face a health risk from aviation fuel lead. The BIA has not been successful in getting departing traffic or planes doing touch-and-go landings to avoid areas where lead exhaust can readily impact residents.

Leaded fuel should not be used at BIA except for planes that are required to use it. The current San Juan Airlines fleet is required. Are there others?

What alternative fuel would the planes now using leaded gas have? There is an alternative that is cost-reasonable and readily available: motor UL gas of 92 [Ed.: Corrected from 91, 9 June 2023] octane that is ethanol-free. Most of the general aviation fleet at BIA can use this fuel and it is as safe to use as the leaded fuel. This gas is readily available close to the airport. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the use of this fuel for those planes with a supplemental-type certificate (STC) standing. That includes most of the planes currently in the BIA general aviation fleet. Before using this fuel, the plane owner must apply for a sticker costing about $100 to shows that the plane has STC standing.

The engines of these general aviation planes (like the Cessna 170) are engineered to run safely on ethanol-free UL92. The companies that make the engines have testified to their safety if they use the UL92 fuel.

Leaded fuel is used because the FAA currently approves it and individual pilots simply prefer it. If the lead in aviation gas were not toxic, there would be no problem. Through the EPA study and other research, we now have a sense of the magnitude of the negative impacts of leaded aviation fuel. There is no place for the continued use of lead in aviation gas at BIA unless it is required. There is an option for most, if not all, of the general aviation fleet.

This is a controversial issue and there is additional evidence for the safety and effectiveness of non-ethanol UL92 octane. For further discussion of the fuel issue:

— Contributed by Bert Webber

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