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Regional Interests

‘A Crisis on Our Hands’: Children Near San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport Exposed to Dangerously

Some children living near a small airport in San Jose have dangerously high blood lead levels — similar to those found in kids in Flint, Michigan during the peak of its water crisis — according to a new study commissioned by Santa Clara County.

The report details the findings of 17,000 blood samples collected from 2011-2020 from children under 18 years of age living near the Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose. Children downwind from the airport had significantly higher blood lead levels than those upwind, with increases of .4 micrograms per deciliter, it found.

In comparison, lead levels found in children during the Flint water crisis were between .35 to .45 micrograms per deciliter over the baseline.“This is a public health issue, it’s an environmental justice issue and it’s an equity issue,” County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said.

“We know this is damaging children’s developing brains,” she said. “What this very thorough study proves is that we literally have a crisis on our hands.”

Many of the small planes that fly in and out of the airport have piston engines that still run on leaded fuel, even though leaded gas for cars was banned decades ago. Lead from aircraft exhaust and unburned fuel can filter from the air, and settle on houses and public surfaces, putting residents at risk of lead poisoning — especially those living downwind within a half-mile of the facility.

“So, in the case of airborne lead, children will [inhale] some, but it will also settle out onto the windowsills, onto the floors of their home, onto the tabletops and they will ingest it,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a pediatric epidemiologist whose work is referenced multiple times in the study.

Lanphear emphasized that lead is a neurotoxin that affects developing brains and nervous systems. For children, he said, there is no safe level of consumption. The younger the child, the more harmful it is to ingest, and even small amounts of lead exposure add up over time and have severe long-lasting impacts, increasing the risk of developmental delays and other negative health outcomes.

He said toddlers were most at risk of higher blood lead levels because they discover the world through their mouth.

Lanphear said the study’s results all pointed to the same conclusion: “The airport endangers the lives of people who live around the airport, but especially children.”

Sammy Zahran, a professor of epidemiology and economics at Colorado State University, and the study’s lead author, said the evidence provides “compelling reason to reduce or eliminate aviation lead emissions to safeguard the welfare and life chances of at-risk children.”

He said numerous studies have linked elevated blood levels in children to “cognitive and intellectual impairments, poor academic achievement, and higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, among other things.”

Controlling for many variables, researchers also calculated how many aircraft running on leaded gas took off from the airport and how much lead formula gas was sold there. The total amounted to more than 5 metric tons of lead between January 2011 and December 2018, they found.

In fact, a 2020 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report identified Reid-Hillview as the 25th-highest lead-emitting airport in the country, with lead emissions from piston aircraft exceeding safety thresholds set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

And 95122, the ZIP code of the airport and surrounding neighborhoods, is one of the top 200 ZIP codes for lead poisoning among children in the state, according to the California Department of Public Health.

In comparing the lead levels in children near the airport to those found in kids in Flint, Zahran noted that Flint’s water crisis lasted less than a year and a half, while the release of lead into the environment around Reid-Hillview is “continuous, a daily unabated stream of an undeniably harmful toxic.”

The airport is mainly used by private pilots, flight schools, and San Jose State’s aviation program. In recent decades, with the rapid expansion of the city, more development has sprouted around the facility, and an increasing number of families have moved in. There are now at least 21 sites serving children within a 1.5-mile radius of the airport.

“I’m not blaming the people who bought houses or the people who are flying airplanes,” Chavez said. “That was a mistake of government to not better protect them. These land uses are incongruous. We didn’t know as much as we do now about air pollution then.”

Armed with these recent findings, she said, the county should move to quickly close the facility.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted last year to phase out the airport, but the soonest it could close under the current arrangement would be 2031 because of obligations connected to Federal Aviation Administration grants.

But Dr. Stephen Harris, a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, said the situation calls for immediate action.

“I’ve seen a number of children who have been lead poisoned. I’ve seen the effects on their brain development, their cognitive abilities and IQ,” Harris said. “I want people to take a good, hard look at this study. We need to think very seriously about what our priorities are in this community.”

This post includes reporting from Jana Kadah of Bay City News.

Copyright 2021 KQED