Leaded gas lowered America’s IQ, and we’re still using it

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There have been dozens of silver-bullet solutions to the automotive industry’s problems over the years. However, once manufacturers, the public, and the government realize that some solutions not only fail but perpetrate the same toxic phenomenon, they take swift action.

Just kidding.

Regulatory bodies are infamous for moving at an ambulatory pace when it comes to managing toxins. The latest example is leaded gasoline. You thought that stuff left the market in the ’70s? Well, 1970’s Clean Air Act did set a deadline for its elimination, but that same law left a few loopholes, including one that, despite the known effects of leaded gasoline, has permitted the stuff to remain commonplace.

It’s harmed entire generations of Americans, too.

Vintage gas pump patina at old station
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A recent video from Engineering Explained on YouTube brought up this topic. Jason Fenske, the channel’s host, cherry-picked some interesting data from two studies that looked deep into how large-scale exposure to this developmental neurotoxin has impacted our health. In the short term, the symptoms are not good. In long run, they’re even worse. The metric to which you should pay attention is blood-lead level (BLL): According to a study published in October 2021, over half the U.S. population—53 percent, to be exact—has increased levels of lead in their bloodstream. Lead exposure and IQ are inversely related, so this means that over half of Americans have lost some degree of intellectual capacity.

The usefulness of lead in the transportation industry is well-documented. Lead was actually a fuel substitute when first brought to market. Internal-combustion engines run more efficiently and make more power when the octane rating of their fuel is higher. In period, the first suggestion to leverage this was to introduce ethanol—the very stuff so many despise today—into the gasoline formula, but the price of ethanol made the idea prohibitively expensive. Enter Thomas Midgley and his tetraethyl lead additive in 1921. By 1923, refineries were adding TEL to gasoline at a ratio of 1 gallon TEL to every 1260 gallons of gas. Thus began our destructive love affair with lead.

Even in the ’20s, lead’s effect on the human body was no secret. Workers at the DuPont facility that made TEL had hallucinations so regularly that the factory floor was known as the “house of butterflies.” (That is an extremely concentrated environment, though; today, there certainly aren’t areas where a normal person would be exposed like that.) Then we realized how tailpipe emissions worked. Unfortunately, it was too late for those born between 1951 and 1980, nearly all of whom have blood-lead levels above the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) defined “toxic” amount of five micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL.)

The pre-boomer generation bore the brunt of lead exposure, but baby boomers didn’t fare much better. That generation suffered an average drop in IQ of 2.6 points, while those born between 1966 and 1970 likely lost 5.9. This same study found people born during that late-’60s timeframe whose blood-lead levels were as high as 25 μg/dL. (Again, literally any lead in the bloodstream is bad; the CDC simply set a reference line at 5 μg/dL. Five times a reference point that really means nothing because there should be no lead in the human bloodstream.)

Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970
Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970. National Archives

When Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970, most considered the problem solved—after all, leaded gas was on the way out. Unfortunately, not until 1996 did lead or lead additives disappear from the gasoline Americans bought at the pump. Eventually the law bore fruit: Those born after the year 2000 show significantly lower amounts of lead in their bloodstream than in previous generations.

Interestingly, the average BBL of people born after 2000 is not zero. Why? A giant loophole in the Clean Air Act still allows the use of leaded gas.

Anyone familiar with fuels who is also into piston engines knows that aviation is the last bastion of leaded gas—and for good reason. The rules set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration are written in blood. Change isn’t accepted simply because someone thinks it’s a good idea; alterations are only made after methodical testing produces confirmed, dependable results. Planes cannot just fall out of the sky due to a seized engine or some fringe-case mechanical failure. Look into how planes are maintained and it’s easy to understand why flying cars will never be anything more than a fever dream for a few crazy folks. The masses can’t be bothered to look behind their cars when backing out of a parking spot, hence the rearview cameras required on all new vehicles since May of 2018. You expect them to do legit pre-flight checklists? Get outta here.

100LL AV Gas plan filling up
Wiki Commons/Beige Alert

That “don’t change what isn’t broken” approach means that leaded fuel remains the standard choice for most recreational aircraft. The aviation community is entirely grounded in the tried-and-true. Many piston-powered planes produced today have designs that you could easily trace to the 1950s. Development rarely happens because the FAA’s certification process is so difficult and expensive. Add in the Boeing 737 MAX debacle, and the FAA is rightfully cautious. I agree that the FAA exists to create safe flying, and therefore understand the drawn-out process to approve these changes, but the FAA also has a responsibility to balance the safety of the persons in these small, piston-powered planes with the health of millions of persons on the ground. Hence why it started the EAGLE initiative earlier this year.

The Eliminate Aviation Gas Lead Emissions (EAGLE) program seems like a step in the right direction to further prioritize public health. The four-part plan falls apart pretty quickly, however, when you examine it from anything less than 10,000 feet. The first two steps are cited by the FAA as “industry led,” which is a cute way of kicking the can down the road. Developing the infrastructure required to make an honest effort to ditched leaded gas requires big money, money that would need to be invested by individuals or companies before the FAA would write policies about the use (or elimination) of leaded fuel or any alternatives. That dynamic alone discourages innovation, since otherwise-motivated companies have no assurance that the FAA will allow their investments to bear fruit.

To make the situation worse, a viable alternative to leaded gas already exists. Planes have been safely flying with it for 10 years—and the FAA has refused to take meaningful action in support of it.

Pilot adding fuel
Doug Schneider/Getty Images

General Aviation Modifications Incorporated (GAMI) has an unleaded 100-octane fuel (G100UL) whose supplemental type certification (STC) was only approved as of April 2022—and its use is still restricted to certain types of Lycoming-powered aircraft. The real struggle is that without wider approval from the FAA, access is basically null for anyone who wants to use the new G100UL fuel. To install a third pump (most airports only offer Jet-A and 100LL) at an airport requires a lot more than a tank and pump. The EPA would need to get involved, and the owner of the airport put up the money to make it all happen, all while hoping that this third option would sell at a volume that made it financially viable. There, too, G100UL faces an uphill battle: This leaded-gas alternative is projected to cost 60 to 85 cents more per gallon, as estimated by GAMI itself.

Yet this new fuel sits awaiting approval as the FAA pats itself on the back for trotting out the EAGLE program. The work is done, yet the progress that would help so many is stifled. It’s time for the FAA to move on the GAMI G100LL and other similar options rather than ordering another review by a technical advisory board, a requirement which GAMI has already sought and completed five times. Generations have lost reasoning ability due to lead exposure that continues to this day thanks to bureaucratic standards set forth in the name of safety. Whose safety?

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