Is lead pollution from airplanes really a problem?

Yes, this is a serious problem with serious human and wildlife health impacts. Lead dust from aviation fuel is extremely harmful. 

It can no longer be denied that lead pollution from planes is a public health and environmental crisis, despite attempts by aviation proponents to cast doubt and delay.  Not all planes use leaded fuel, but the small piston-engine planes that use BDU and other local airports still do. 

A link between regional airport traffic and the blood lead levels of children living nearby was scientifically established in the 2021 study of the impacts from Reid-Hillview airport in Santa Clara County, CA.  The peer-reviewed study found that children living downwind from the Reid-Hillview airport had higher blood lead levels, with increases of .40 micrograms per deciliter, over children living upwind from the airport. For context, lead levels detected during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis were between .35 and .45 micrograms per deciliter over baseline. 
However, Flint Michigan immediately stopped resident exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water and has since replaced the lead-lined pipes.  In contrast, exposure to lead from aviation fuel continues unabated at small airports around the United States including BDU, and there is no plan or timetable for banning leaded aviation fuel.

In October of 2023,
  the U.S. EPA issued an endangerment finding  stating that “emissions of lead from aircraft that operate on leaded fuel cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare under the Clean Air Act.” According to the World Health Organization, “The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible. There is no known safe blood lead concentration.”

Lead testing has not yet been conducted around BDU. However, in the Rock Creek neighborhood at the west end of the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (RMMA) runway in Broomfield, only 13 miles from Boulder, residents, including an infant, have documented cases of elevated blood lead levels.

“When it comes to our children the science is clear, exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions to air in the country.”

95% of the lead in aviation fuel is emitted on burning, and the resulting nanoparticles are too small to be easily filtered by pollution control devices. The tiny size of these particles makes them particularly absorbable by and toxic to living tissue. Source: CDC Report "Exposures to Lead and Other Metals at an Aircraft Repair and Flight School Facility".

Lead is a known serious health risk to all animal and human life. Exposure to lead is particularly harmful to young children and pregnant women. Lead exposure can cause lifelong disadvantages for children and developing fetuses. It leads to lower IQ and has been linked to antisocial behavior as well as reproductive, heart, and other health problems.

For more information see lead in aviation fuel and aviation lead around Boulder County. ​