Ian Seager


With Ian Seager


Lead should weigh heavily on our minds

No matter ‘who writes what’, the fact remains that leaded fuel is an anachronism – and the sooner we can switch to unleaded fuel the better

In last month’s column I wrote about a study into lead pollution in the UK. The research was carried out by the University of Kent, and it looked at the role that General Aviation played thanks to its use of 100LL – leaded avgas. 

Without wishing to repeat myself here (I’m not that lazy), I felt that there were some assumptions made by the University of Kent that were deeply flawed that, as a result, the amount of pollution was overestimated, but that regardless, we should all be doing better anyway. You can read that column here.

I’m returning to the subject this month thanks to a news story that appeared in the Telegraph on January 9 under the clickbait headline: ‘Aeroplane hobbyists putting thousands at risk of cancer thanks to lead-based fuel

The story repeats the conclusions of the Kent study by stating that anyone living within 4km of one of the UK’s 134 recreational airfields could be breathing emissions that remain in their body, causing irreversible harm to children and possibly lowering their IQ.

It reports on a letter sent to four Cabinet ministers signed by people like the chief executives of Breast Cancer UK, the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, and Green Alliance.

The story points out that since leaving the EU, we are no longer subject to European regulation, we are consequently at risk of falling behind international standards, and of failing to ban the use of leaded fuel (tetraethyl lead – TEL – is due to be phased out in the EU from 2025, and there are various proposals to do the same, albeit from a later start date, in the US).

General Aviation pilots reading the piece will not find it difficult to find fault.

It’s illustrated with a picture of a Rotax-powered CFM Shadow microlight that burns unleaded fuel. Relating the story to ‘hobbyist’ pilots does nothing other than add bias (I guess we should be thankful it didn’t also scatter the usual ‘rich’ and ‘playboy’ terms, too).

Neither the University of Kent research, nor the resulting Bloomberg article (mentioned in my previous column) or the latest Telegraph article, consider the environmental game of whack-a-mole by looking at problems caused by other non-clean fuels, and how that compares to 100LL, and the writer does nothing to point out the error in the letter from the various charities that suggests emissions are ‘higher during both take-off and landing’ etc. 

Sadly, any comfort found in spotting errors doesn’t change the fundamental issue – leaded fuel is an anachronism and the sooner we all have the ability to use  unleaded fuel the better.

If I could fuel my aeroplane with unleaded fuel I’d do so today, as would almost all the GA pilots I know.

The authors of the letter suggest that the UK (the world’s only producer of TEL, by the way), is missing a trick, and that we could somehow be leading the way in the development of a new fuel for General Aviation aircraft. 

Maybe we could, and maybe we should, but there are many projects, including one in the US that now has an STC for pretty much any engine that runs on 100LL.

What we need is to fast-track the manufacturing and distribution network, and that as much as we might not like it, probably will take legislative action in the world’s major markets.

Join the discussion on the FLYER forum on this subject here


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