A 2014 lawsuit won by Oakland's Center for Environmental Health seems not to have affected operations at Montgomery Field.
  • A 2014 lawsuit won by Oakland's Center for Environmental Health seems not to have affected operations at Montgomery Field.
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Usually when people complain about small regional airports, the issue is noise. But Serra Mesa resident Gary Keller is worried about lead poisoning, and a California health coalition — supported by EPA research — says his concerns are valid.

Significance of colors overlaid on map above

Significance of colors overlaid on map above

"Far more insidious is the fact that the small piston-driven engines that make up most of your fleet continue to burn Avgas,” he said. “Serra Mesa has the most elementary schools, daycare facilities, and most minority children of the areas near the airport, and we should be protecting them.”

Avgas is now recognized as the leading source of lead in air pollution — putting about 500 tons of the toxic heavy metal in the air each year. Lead is part of the fuel formula because it is believed to enhance engine performance. It’s also a major focus for people concerned about environmental health says Caroline Cox, research director with the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland.

In 2014, the center settled a lawsuit over the ongoing use of leaded aviation gas brought against 30 California companies that sell or distribute Avgas at 23 California airports, including Montgomery and Brown Fields.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health, lead is a well-documented neurotoxicant that is particularly harmful to children. Serious harm to cognitive and behavioral functions (including intelligence, attention, and motor skills) has been demonstrated in children with much less lead in their blood than previously thought to cause harm, and it has been determined that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

“Every year we identify causal links to more and more health problems that are caused by lead,” Cox said. “Lead is cumulative; a child who lives near an airport where it’s used, in an old house with lead-based paint and drinks water that carries lead from the pipes is looking at a lifetime of health issues.”

Avgas is used primarily by small planes — jet fuel is completely different — and some helicopters.

“It’s primarily used in recreation aviation,” said Cox, “but it’s also used in air ambulances and firefighting — and those are powerful political voices. If you watch the flight trackers near airports like Montgomery, you see the small planes take off and land and take off and land, over and over — those are flight schools, and their maneuvers burn especially high amounts of Avgas.”

The Federal Aviation Administration and the EPA are supposed to announce their plans to phase out Avgas in 2018, but Cox says they don’t appear to be on track to be able to do that. One of the biggest challenges is that the planes used for recreation are as much as 50 years old and still flying, she said.

“Leaded fuel in cars was phased out by the late 1980s as the old cars wore out and people bought cars built to run on unleaded gas,” Cox said.

Serra Mesa resident Gary Keller noted that the airport does encourage pilots, who usually take off westbound, to turn right — north — instead of circling south over Serra Mesa.

“Flying schools, flying clubs, and touring aircraft choose to go left and bring the noise and lead pollution with them,” he said. “You could be rock stars and get them to not fly over and pollute our neighborhoods.”

The airport advisory board that heard Keller's remarks couldn't respond to them at the meeting because state law forbids acting on anything that isn't on the current meeting agenda. The open-meetings law is supposed to ensure that the public is notified of issues we're concerned about before the meeting so we have the chance to participate in the discussion.

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Visduh Nov. 16, 2017 @ 8:53 p.m.

When the big push came in the 70's to get the lead additives out of gasoline, I never gave any thought to aviation gasoline. I was vaguely aware that it had a higher octane rating than any gas sold for terrestrial motor vehicles or boat motors, but that was about all. So, it was exempted from the laws that outlawed tetraethyl lead, huh? If a few planes were burning it in small quantities, that would be one thing. There are more than a few general aviation aircraft out there, and some are used intensively. That implies a lot of lead-containing exhaust is generated, and the ban on lead additives is being circumvented, if on a smaller scale.

There are still plenty of old cars and trucks on the road that date from the era when lead was added to the gasoline. Somehow their owners/operators have managed to deal with the absence of leaded gasoline. (Maybe a lead additive they use? Or something else?) If the industry keeps making airplane engines that require that high-octane fuel, it will go on forever.


danfogel Nov. 16, 2017 @ 10:40 p.m.

Most older cars can run unleaded with no problem. Without getting too technical, it has to do with wear on soft exhaust valves and valve seats without the lead compounds formed by combustion acting as a lubricant to prevent valve seat recession. I have a few pre-1971 muscle cars, all of which have had head work done on them, including replacing valves and seats with modern, hardened parts. I run high octane and even with 10-10.5 compression, I haven't had any problems.


outdoord Nov. 17, 2017 @ 12:38 p.m.

One big difference is what happens when you have a mechanical problem. In a car you can pull to the side of the road. What do you do when you are 2,000 feet in the air and there is no airport nearby? That is why the FAA must certify that any new fuels are safe and will NOT cause mechanical problems with current aircraft engines. The testing has take place over a long enough period of time to ensure the fuels are safe.


bcoldpro Nov. 17, 2017 @ 10:43 a.m.

How is AV Gas used in small aircraft different than the fuel used in Commercial and Military Aircraft. Those aircraft don't dump excess fuel when landing?


outdoord Nov. 17, 2017 @ 12:56 p.m.

Fuel used by the military and commercial jets is more like Kerosene or Diesel and does not contain lead (turbine engines don't need to worry about "Knocking" or pre-detonation which is the reason that auto fuels used to have lead, and piston aircraft engines still have lead. Aircraft engines have to operate from sea level up to 20,000 feet, with or without turbocharging, which is a very broad set of conditions. So far only lead additives enable that to happen. The reason unleaded gas works in cars is the narrower range they operate in and the very advanced computer controls and sensors that modern cars have. Older cars didn't fare well until their valves or engines were replaced/overhauled. Most old cars are not even on the road unless they are classics. The average general aviation aircraft flying today is over 40 years old. They don't have computer controlled engines or sensors, so any new unleaded fuels must be tested thoroughly to determine that these aircraft won't be damaged mechanically and cause accidents and fatalities. When an unleaded fuel is proven safe and made available aircraft owners will be pleased to change over. It will be safer to handle, less expensive to transport, and hopefully less expensive to purchase!


Ponzi Nov. 17, 2017 @ 6:51 p.m.

People that choose to live near egg farms, landfills, airports, concert venues, railroad tracks, always seem to start complaining after a while. So when safety concerns are addressed, and curfews are set, they look for other factors to slay their dragon. A lot of the old planes like Piper Cubs and Cessna 172’s have less horsepower that todays cars and trucks.

I used to be a private pilot and know it’s safer to fly than drive a car. Other than military training, private pilots often advance to commercial rating and are an important component of small aircraft fleets for search-and rescues, transport pilots, rural transportation, bush pilots, crop dusters, emergency evacuation, small commuter and private corporate transport. They are a vital part of our economy.

In addition, the municipal airports are an asset for national defense and disasters. California has a unique, unpredictable disaster scenario known as “earthquakes.” We may be complacent because this invisible force rarely strikes with devastation, but it lurks like a time-bomb. C-17 Globemaster air transports can land and take-off on short runways like Montgomery and Gillespie Field. We need those airstrips for recreational aircraft as well as standby airfields for our national security and disaster staging. Those Mooney's, Pipers, Cessna's and Beechcraft's pay the bills and keep these important assets afloat.


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