Portland Police Bureau planes present a current environmental risk to our communities.
Each year airplane emissions cause an estimated 10,000 premature deaths worldwide. Sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides are serious air pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory irritation and diseases, including lung cancer. When planes fly at cruising heights (35,000 feet+), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are mostly whisked away by wind currents to be someone else’s problem. Not so for low flying police planes, keeping pollutants closer to home.
While nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides are produced by all planes, small piston-engine aircraft, like the PPB Cessnas, have an additional danger: lead.
According to a study by researchers at Duke University and Florida State University, half of the US population was exposed to damaging levels of lead in their childhood, with an IQ loss of nearly three points per person. While lead in auto fuel was banned 25 years ago, it is still permitted in single piston engine aviation fuel.
An estimated 170,000 aircraft use leaded fuel nationwide and many of them are owned by law enforcement agencies like the Portland Police Bureau.
According to the EPA, lead emissions from piston engine aircraft accounts for 70 percent of all atmospheric lead pollution. No amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Children living near airports (within 1,000m/3,000ft) for single piston engine aircraft have higher blood concentrations of lead. Studies on the impact of regular low-altitude circling over specific neighborhoods are not readily available.
A study from MIT estimated that lead from aircraft emissions “contributes to $1.06 billion 2006 USD ($0.01–$11.6) in annual damages from lifetime earnings reductions.” The EPA has proposed a comprehensive Leaded Fuel Endangerment Finding, expected for release some time in 2023.
Portlanders can acquire lead in their bodies from inhalation, drinking contaminated water, ingestion of paint or soil with lead, or skin absorption. It accumulates in the bones, blood, and soft issues, where it can damage the kidneys, reproductive system, and brain, as well as cause other neurological and developmental disruptions.
P.R.A.D.A. obtained flight logs, GPS coordinates of the plane, and fuel purchases for a 6 month period. These documents confirm PPB’s aviation unit uses AVGAS 100LL, a leaded gasoline harmful to people and the environment. Their flights repeatedly harm our city and as we will show, disproportionately impacting marginalized communities. This environmental racism and impact continues a pattern and practice of brutality. While not a direct hit from a baton, the lead’s poisonous presence in bodies due to police harm is very real and needs to be addressed.
“All forms of lead are toxic if inhaled or ingested. Infants and young children are especially sensitive to even low levels of lead, which may contribute to behavioral and learning and lower IQ.” -FAA.gov
The Portland Police Bureau claims, without citation or quantification, that replacing the Cessna Skyhawk with a newer plane, “…reduces fuel costs and need for maintenance, which uses electricity and potentially the use of solvents.” The “100% Renewable Goal” says nothing of the current and proposed output of harmful chemicals, principally lead, known to have extremely adverse public health effects. A Public Health and Environmental Impact Assessment must be conducted, to fully investigate the efficacy of the Portland Police Bureau’s claims.
“These vehicles, which rely on leaded fuel to operate safely, constitute the nation’s largest remaining source of lead emissions.” -MIT
P.R.A.D.A. obtained fuel purchase records from PPB covering January of 2021 to June of 2021. These records confirm PPB’s use of AVGAS100LL. There are two forms of AVGAS, 100 and 100LL. The LL stands for Low Lead and does contain reduced lead content.
A study published in the National Institute of Health identifies that, “100LL gasoline contains up to 0.56 g/L lead.” It is critical to remember that while these planes use “low lead” fuel, the impact still compounds due to their regular flights over the same areas. With the 1,200 average hours over Portland, the low lead levels build. Remember, there is no known safe level of lead.
We also obtained the flight path and latitude/longitude of the plane for a period time. This allowed our analysts to create the heatmap and with all the data, calculate the exhaust and output of lead in that period.
How much lead?
E = (V * k * f) / d
V: volume of fuel consumed
k: lead concentration
F: emission factor
d: fuel density
Data and Assumptions:
Fuel used: Avgas 100LL
V = 3703.4 gallons
k = 0.56 g/L, or 2.12 g/gal
f = 0.95 (~5% of lead is retained in the engine, engine oil, & exhaust system)
d = 907,180 g/ton
E = (3703.4 * 2.12 * 0.95) / 907,180
E = 16.44 lbs lead in 6 months
Reviewing the lat/long of the plane shows that PPB’s surveillance and emission of dangerous lead disproportionately impacts already marginalized communities. A side by side comparison, available on our heat map, shows the plane spent the majority of its time over specific neighborhoods.
These neighborhoods also represent some of Portland’s more diverse communities of color.
When we compare the neighborhoods with the highest percentage of Black residents to the neighborhoods with highest concentration of flight pings, we see an over-surveilled community and one being impacted by poisonous emissions. This environmental racism shows a pattern and practice of harm that compounds lead levels and historic disinvestments.
Our Indigenous communities also live under the flight path of these planes, circling and harming.
Asian, Native Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islanders are also at risk.
What is immediately obvious from all these comparisons is that PPB, through its planes and policies, put communities of color under its planes and emissions. Also in these neighborhoods are parks, streams, natural areas, hospitals, schools, and community centers. While the city claims to support community building, they passively harm us day after day.
While our data is from January to June of 2021, continued monitoring of the PPB planes show the pattern and practice continues today. Tools like PDX Skywatch regularly post the flights of these planes and the disproportionate presence in East Portland still exists.
For awareness, we recommend people follow @pdx_skywatch on Twitter.
Lead is not the only harm coming from these planes. In our time of climate change and growing fire seasons, the carbon impact of these planes also raises alarms. These planes spew CO2 into our air, over and over.
M = V * d
E: mass of fuel consumed
V: volume of fuel consumed
d: density of fuel
E = M * f
M: mass of fuel consumed
f: emission factor
E = V * d * f
Data and Assumptions
Fuel used: Avgas 100LL
d = 721.1 kg/m³ (or 6.01 lbs/gal) (assuming 15 degrees C)
f = 3.07
V = 3703.4 gallons
E = 3703.4 * 6.01 * 3.07
E = 68,330 lbs CO2 (consistent with ~53 lbs / mile average)
- SHARE THIS INFO: Educating communities on issues of environmental racism and the impacts is critical. Many do not know the hum of the plane above them is a police plane surveilling their actions and emitting harmful toxins. Talk with your people and organize. Check out the dashboard and visuals of our communities being harmed. Review the data and flight logs.
- SIGN OUR PETITION: We will share this with Mayor Wheeler, council, and PPB. Demand they ground these poison planes.
- CONTACT YOUR ELECTEDS: Share your voice with them directly. Ask why this has been allowed and demand PPB repair their historic and current harms.
- SUPPORT LOCAL ORGS: Verde have a long history of standing for marginalized communities against environmental impacts. Oregon Aviation Watch are a dedicated community deeply knowledgeable and to whom we owe a debt.