Editor’s Note: We erroneously referred to Rich Morey as the owner of Morey Airport. He is the airport manager. We regret the error.
The airport sits on the northwest side of the city of Middleton, and sits within two miles of four schools and four public parks and recreational areas.
Chair Cynthia Richson, says she finds the airport’s proximity to places where children learn and play concerning.
“Every day, these recreational planes at this recreational airport dust us with lead emission. Airborne lead is toxic, it’s a neurotoxin, there is no safe level, lead exposure is cumulative, it doesn’t dissipate from the environment, and it affects the children and the families that live in this community. The town of Middleton and the city of Middleton, the planes fly at very low altitudes, and when they’re doing that, you’re breathing lead into your lungs,” Richson says.
After learning about the issue in 2019, Richson hired a consulting firm to run a study on lead levels surrounding the Morey Airport. The group, Trinity Consultants, is the same group used by the EPA to run their own lead level tests. Those consultants found that the airport generated about 217 pounds of lead pollution each year – or over 30% of all airborne lead emissions in Dane County.
Rich Morey is manager of Morey Airport. He says the lead levels from aviation fuel are overblown.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want lead in the atmosphere, even in small amounts, but if you do atmospheric and soil samples, you’re not going to find elevated levels of lead around airports. For example, I’ve been working at this airport for coming up on 50 years. I started here when I was 14 years old. I currently work here 6 days a week, I fly aircraft, I fuel aircraft, I occasionally work on aircraft, and out of curiosity I had my blood checked for lead. I do not have elevated lead levels,” Morey says.
Richman says that she is not convinced, pointing to a 2011 study out of the national Environmental Health Perspectives research journal. She says the “Miranda Study,” named after one of the lead researchers, is a gold star study in airborne lead pollution.
“North Carolina has much better laws for blood testing children, I think ages 1 and 2, so they had a nice big data set they could study. They had 13,000 children living within 2000 meters, or about 1.24 miles of 66 different general aviation airports. They had significantly high blood lead levels. After finding out about that study, our town decided to do the study with Trinity Consulting,” Richson says.
The issue all stems from the use of leaded aviation fuel by planes at Morey Airport. Morey, the airport manager, says the fuel currently available for small planes needs some lead, otherwise it would destroy the engine.
And while new types of unleaded aircraft fuel are being developed by researchers, Morey says that not only is that fuel not yet widely approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, but it isn’t easy to find.
“Once this approval gets out there and there’s a market for it, and we start to see this stuff produced on a regular basis, I think the costs are going to go down. I also think once this happens the EPA, or the powers that be, will rescind the exception on leaded fuel, and we’re going to be forced to, no matter the cost, be running on unleaded fuel. And that’s perfectly fine by me, the reality is, even if there are some engines that are (able to use it), I just can’t get that fuel through my supplier, it’s just not available,” Morey says.
But how dangerous is airborne lead exposure at the Morey Airport? Airborne lead exposure in airplanes themselves comes when lead in the fuel is burned and exits the plane’s exhaust. The lead then turns into dust, and that lead dust then falls to the ground, exposing those under it to the lead.
Henry Anderson is an adjunct professor of population health at UW Madison. He says that telling exactly how much lead falls where can be hard to tell without more extensive testing.
“They will be putting lead, wherever they are, into the atmosphere. Then it’s a matter of how much dilution occurs from the exhaust coming out of the airplane to when it would reach the ground. (It’s like) throwing a handful of flour out of your window on the second story. Where does it go? How much follows right underneath your winder? Lead isn’t a good thing to be throwing around, but it probably isn’t that much (that ends up in) the school,” Anderson says.
Even low levels of exposure to lead has been shown to carry a bevy of serious health effects, especially in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure can lead to damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning problems, and hearing and speech problems.
According to a 2021 study by the EPA, leaded aviation fuel is the largest remaining aggregate source of air lead emissions in the United States.
And last month, the environmental subcommittee of the US House Oversight committee held a hearing on the use of leaded plane fuel and its effect on childhood development. . At that hearing, advocates presented a study showing that the closer a child lived to an airport, the higher their blood lead level, even more so if they lived downwind of the airport.
Earlier this year, the FAA launched what they call the EAGLE Initiative, a path to eliminate all aviation gasoline lead emissions. They say that aviation remains the only source of lead emissions in all of transportation, and hope to move to unleaded fuel by 2030.
Morey says that he welcomes that change, but until unleaded fuel is approved safe and easily available, his hands are tied.
Photo courtesy: Drew Beamer / UNSPLASH