General aviation aircraft at Long Beach Airport can now gas up with unleaded fuel—a greener alternative to what has been a lead-spewing standard that, for decades, has raised health concerns among experts and nearby residents.

The change, which applies to all non-commercial planes, doesn’t mean they’ll have to use the new fuel. They can still fill up on leaded gas, but the new option is in line with a national initiative called EAGLE (Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions) that the Federal Aviation Administration is spearheading to end the use of leaded fuels by 2030.

“Long Beach has done this in advance of that process,” Curt Castagna, president of the Long Beach Airport Association and president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association, said in an interview Monday.

“They’re taking progressive steps, and other airports in California are doing that, but you don’t see it throughout the United States because they don’t necessarily share the same environmental concerns that we have here,” Castagna added.

The transition is a welcome one for one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. Long Beach is rated one of the worst in terms of lead pollution in the nation, second only to Phoenix Deer Valley, according to the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice.

Mayor Rex Richardson pumps newly available unleaded fuel into a single-engine plane at Long Beach Airport during a small press event Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Lead exposure can lead to issues with the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental system, and the cardiovascular system.

Federal regulations phased out leaded gasoline for cars and trucks in the 1990s, and commercial aircraft also use unleaded fuel, but the burning of aviation gas, or avgas, in private planes is still allowed and has become the leading source of airborne lead particulates as a result.

Lori Shepler believes the issue could be life or death for her 6-year-old daughter, who attends Carver Elementary with her twin brother just blocks away from the airport and directly under the flight path for the airport’s smallest runway.

“She’s a cancer survivor, and cancer survivors are more prone to respiratory issues,” Shepler said of her daughter, whose treatment included the removal of one of her kidneys. “The issue of these lead emissions is concerning for my children and for all children in America.”

The California Department of Public Health notes that there is “no known safe level of childhood lead exposure” and that parents living near general aviation airports should have children tested for lead.

In response to concerns, the Long Beach City Council set the city down a path to bring unleaded fuel to Long Beach Airport in October of last year.

“We began this conversation a couple of years ago when we learned about some of the harms of leaded fuels,” said Mayor Rex Richardson, who brought the issue up last year as a council member. During a press event Monday, Richardson said he is proud of this first step but added that there’s “much more to do,” including looking toward electrified air travel in the future.

“Cleaner flight, cleaner mobility, cleaner aviation is the goal,” Richardson said.

As one more step in that direction, Long Beach is trying to incentivize the use of unleaded fuel. In December, the council adopted a resolution amending the airport’s fuel fees, exempting unleaded avgas from flowage fees for three years to incentivize its usage. Flowage fees are a tax paid on each gallon of fuel offered for sale at the airport.

Signature Flight Support, the leading fixed-base operator at Long Beach Airport, coordinated with Swift Fuels to bring the unleaded product, called UL94, to Long Beach. The fuel is compatible with 60% to 70% of the piston-powered aircraft that operate at the airfield, according to a July 14 city memo.

“Long Beach Airport will continue to work with industry partners to identify opportunities to incentivize a safe and speedy transition toward the eventual elimination of leaded aviation fuel, in keeping with the goals set by the Federal Aviation Administration,” airport Director Cynthia Guidry said in an email.

The remaining aircraft require a higher-octane fuel (100 low-lead), for which an unleaded alternative is not widely available nationwide.

In September, General Aviation Modifications, Inc., received FAA approval of its G100 unleaded fuel. The company previously stated it planned for the fuel to be available in California in the second half of this year, followed by a nationwide rollout next year.

The GAMI website states its G100UL is available now subject to availability. Castagna explained that FAA testing of a fuel’s engine compatibility is separate from industrywide testing of the various other aircraft components involved. That testing, he said, is ongoing and, along with production and distribution limitations, is keeping the fuel off the market for the time being.

“It’s complicated,” Castagna said.

Swift, meanwhile, is in the testing stages of its own 100LL replacement.

When these higher-octane fuel alternatives become widely available, Castanga said the airport—and aviation industry as a whole—will likely run off the 100UL products.

For Shepler and her children, the complete changeover can’t come soon enough, but today’s announcement was “a small relief to a big issue.”