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10/25/2016 - Effects from lead in plumbing, paint and gasoline continue to haunt the health and well-being of communities even decades after its widespread use ended, but tons of lead from gasoline are still released each year at general aviation airports throughout the nation, which include three in Oakland County.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began phasing out lead from automobile gasoline in 1973, with a complete removal of lead from the fuel in 1995. However, the vast majority of today's fuel that powers piston-engine aircraft still contains lead.

Used by about 167,000 piston-engine aircraft at some 20,000 airports in the United States, general aviation fuel, or "avgas," is the only remaining lead-containing transportation fuel. Avgas is used in general aviation aircraft with piston engines, which are generally used for instructional flying, air taxi activities and personal transportation. Some helicopters and recreation craft, such as ultralights, may also use avgas. Lead isn't found in jet fuel, which is used by most commercial aircraft.

Piston-engine aircraft account for the largest source of lead emissions in the air in the United States, including industrial sources, such as ore and metal processing facilities. Emissions of lead from piston-engine aircraft using leaded avgas make up about half of the nation's inventory of lead emitted from the air.

In Oakland County, piston-engine aircraft produced more than a half ton of air emissions in 2008, according to the EPA. Those emissions, along with the airport's layout and pressure placed on federal regulators to begin a national phase out of lead from aviation gasoline, forced the county to monitor lead concentrations in the air at it's largest airport, Oakland County International Airport in Waterford, in 2011 and 2012.

The county also owns and operates Oakland Southwest Airport in Lyon Township; and the Oakland/Troy Airport. Additionally, there are more than two dozen helipads, seaports and unregistered air fields where some piston-powered helicopters, seaplanes and ultralight aircraft may operate in the county.

County airport officials estimate there are more than 50,000 annual, combined takeoffs and landings by piston-engine aircraft at its three airports, with about half of those conducted at Oakland County International. By comparison, the airport registers about 100,000 commercial jet takeoffs and landings each year.

David VanderVeen, airport spokesman and director of central services for Oakland County, said the total number of flights at Oakland County International Airport have dropped from about 390,000 takeoffs and landings in 1988 to about 120,000 annually now. The biggest decline in operations, he said, is with smaller, piston-engine planes that use leaded gas.

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