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County's role in leaded aviation gas issue

Kids often love watching airplanes take off and land at airports. And those who live close to local airports have the joy of gawking at the metal birds as they ascend and descend every day. For those who are watching single piston engine airplanes (PEA) – known as general aircraft – there is a hidden danger lurking in the air and water, driving up dangerous lead levels.

In a cruel twist, while the last gallon of leaded gasoline was pumped into the last car by January 1, 1996, single piston engine airplanes continue to operate on leaded fuel. Unlike the country’s fleet – 6,000 of them – of larger commercial jets, which use kerosene-based jet fuel, PEAs rely on a fuel formulated with Tetraethyl lead. It is added to avgas to increase octane and thereby prevent “knock,” or uncontrolled fuel detonation, which can damage aircraft engines and even cause sudden engine failure.

Currently, there is no alternative for the fuel, despite efforts, notably in Europe, to create an unleaded fuel. Which means those living near airports are at drastically higher exposure and danger from avgas. Lead contamination occurs through inhalation or ingestion of lead in food, water, soil, or dust particles. The heavy metal primarily accumulates in the body’s blood, bones and soft tissues and damages the nervous system, as well as the cardiovascular system, reproductive system, blood, kidneys and other organs. Excessive lead exposure during early childhood is associated with lower IQ scores and neurological impairment such as seizures, mental development and behavioral disorders. Even at low doses, lead exposure may be a factor in high blood pressure and subsequent heart disease.

According to reporter Stacy Gittleman's story in this issue of Downtown Newsmagzine, research studies focused on the use of leaded gas in aviation, nationwide, showed there are 16 million people and three million children who live within a kilometer of the 19,000 airports that service the nation’s fleet of around 170,000 registered single piston aircraft, or PEAs. The flow of lead from PEAs constitutes between half and two-thirds of remaining lead emissions in the United States, according to a 2008 EPA study.

In one EPA study, Oakland County International Airport had a reading of .59 tons of annual lead emissions. More recent estimates show about a quarter ton of lead particulate matter is generated from this airport. A 2020 EPA study concluded that the crucial area studied lies just at the end of the runway where pilots are required to conduct safety checks with engines running just prior to takeoff.

The state’s busiest general aviation airport, and the 12th busiest airport of its kind in the world, is the Oakland County International Airport (OCIA) located on M-59 (Highland Road) in Waterford Township, resting on the shores of Pontiac Lake and immediately south of Williams Lake. On average, 120,000 takeoffs and landings occur at this county-owned and operated airport each year, with an average of 390 flights per day as documented by the FAA in 2022. Oakland County owns and operates two other airports – the Oakland/Troy Airport located between Maple Road and 14 Mile Road, between Coolidge Highway and Crooks Road, and the Oakland/Southwest Airport on Pontiac Trail in New Hudson.

Just as those living in old homes with flaking lead-based paint have their children tested for lead, we urge those living in close proximity to the three Oakland County airports to have their children, and themselves, tested for lead. Those living around Pontiac and Williams lakes would be especially wise to do so – Oakland County International Airport generates a concerning level of lead particulate matter each day, likely dropped into local lakes, ground and ultimately in well waters, beyond the air residents breath daily.

We are regularly disappointed at the nation's federal agencies' snail-like response to dealing with this issue which we are now told will be remedied by 2030.

In the interim, on the county level, we think Oakland should take a leadership role and offer to cover the cost of lead testing for interested residents adjacent to the county airports, regardless of what some say about acceptable levels of lead emission, an oxymoron if there ever was one. We are told that the federal government does not require testing for lead contamination in residents living near airports but that is where a leadership role comes into play.

In one of the wealthiest counties in the country, with one of the busiest general aviation airports, we think a system of testing for the impact of lead aviation gas should be established, especially for exposed children -- and on the county's dime.


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