Leaded gas was phased out 25 years ago. Why are these California planes still using toxic fuel?

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Small planes still use leaded fuel long after cars abandoned it
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Miguel Alarcon made a habit of wiping down his white Ford pickup truck parked in the driveway of his East San Jose home in California. Like clockwork, a layer of grey film appeared on his car every few days, which he believed was an accumulation of exhaust from leaded-fuel planes flying overhead in and out of Reid-Hillview Airport.

"My car was always dirty from the pollution," said Alarcon, 42, who lived across the street from the airport from 2014 to 2017.

While he lived there, Alarcon said, he also struggled with respiratory issues. His doctor prescribed antibiotics to treat his breathing problems. But when his sneezing didn't stop, his doctor recommended he move far from the airport in East San Jose, an area where 2.5 percent of children under 6 years old who were tested had detectable levels of lead in their blood, according to the California Department of Public Health's most recent figures, from 2012. He moved out for a price; his rent jumped from $800 to $1,700 a month.

"The problem is sadly it's very expensive here [in San Jose]," said Alarcon, who earns $5,000 a month after taxes as a roofing contractor. "In the airport area, in each house, there are two to three families because it's so expensive."

With rent costing more than $3,200 on average for a three-bedroom home in San Jose, many working-class people like Alarcon have been forced into making a wrenching decision: pay more affordable rent but endure poorer air quality.

San Jose, Calif. Gianfranco Vivi / Getty Images

That's because Reid-Hillview is one of 13,000 so-called general aviation airports, from which leaded-fuel piston-engine aircraft fly. While leaded gasoline was fully phased out in 1996 with the passage of the Clean Air Act, it still fuels a fleet of 170,000 piston-engine airplanes and helicopters. Leaded aviation fuel, or avgas, now makes up "the largest remaining aggregate source of lead emissions to air in the U.S.," according to the Environmental Protection…
Leticia Miranda, Cyrus Farivar, Michela Moscufo
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