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Children living near East San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport are experiencing blood lead levels similar to those of children in Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its water crisis in the previous decade, a new study commissioned by Santa Clara County revealed.
Some local leaders and health experts are calling the situation a crisis.
“This is a public health issue, it’s an environmental justice issue and it’s an equity issue,” Supervisor Cindy Chavez said.
The small private planes that fly out of the Reid-Hillview airport use leaded fuel that pollutes the nearby environment, which then puts residents at risk of lead poisoning — especially for those living within a half-mile of the facility.
The lead can stay in the air or settle on houses and public surfaces, which means residents breath in or ingest lead.
“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 throughout the study.
Lanphear emphasized that there is no safe amount of lead consumption, and for children, any drop of lead can have serious long-lasting impacts. He said toddlers were the most at risk of higher blood lead levels and thus experiencing those negative effects, because they discover the world through their mouth.
But any person whose brain has not fully developed is at risk of substantial and possibly irreversible negative health, behavioral and cognitive outcomes, experts said.
“Numerous studies have linked elevated blood levels and children to cognitive and intellectual impairments, poor academic achievement, and higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, among other things,” said renowned epidemiologist and author of the study, Sammy Zahran.
The 131-page report details the findings of 17,000 blood samples collected from 2011 to 2020 from children younger than 18 living near the airport. It found that children living downwind from the airport had higher blood lead levels than those living upwind, with increases of .4 micrograms per deciliter.
In comparison, lead levels during the Flint water crisis were between .35 to .45 micrograms per deciliter over the baseline.
Shades of Flint, Michigan
Zahran was also one of the key scientists investigating lead contamination of drinking water supplies in Flint.
He said Flint was an imperfect comparison to the lead contamination in San Jose, with respect to the nature of the exposure.
In one case, contaminated water entered the home, and in the other it was atmospheric deposition that polluted the outside.
“However, it is worth noting that the Flint water crisis from start to finish unfolded in less than a year and a half,” Zahran said. “By contrast, at Reid-Hillview, the release of lead into the lived environment is continuous — a daily unabated stream of an undeniably harmful toxic.”
Zahran broke down the statistical analysis of his study this past week along with Lanphear.
“(T)he Flint water crisis from start to finish unfolded in less than a year and a half. By contrast, at Reid-Hillview, the release of lead into the lived environment is continuous — a daily unabated stream of an undeniably harmful toxic.”Sammy Zahran, study author
He said residents living downwind of the airport, or east, statistically have higher blood lead levels. Younger children also had higher levels of lead in their blood.
County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan, who announced the study’s findings along with Chavez a day before Zahran’s breakdown, emphasized that lead poisoning was “the greatest concern due to its relatively high level of activity and close proximity to residential areas.”
This is because there are at least 21 sites serving children in a 1.5-mile radius of the airport.
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.
Preparing for airport’s closure
The report was done at the directive of supervisors in 2020, who voted to halt any additional grants to the airport in preparation of its closure by 2031 — when the current Federal Aviation Administration grant expires.
At that 2020 vote, supervisors voted to prepare for the airfield closure because of the negative lead impacts but also because the 180-acre space could be transformed into affordable housing, social services, educational resources and open space.
At that meeting, supervisors directed staff to include the San Martin airport into the study.
However, in the last 10 years, only 68 blood samples were collected from children living near the San Martin airport, so there wasn’t enough data to conduct credible statistical analysis.
For residents living near Mineta San Jose International Airport, lead poisoning is not much of a threat because commercial planes use a different type of jet fuel that is unleaded.
Sylvia Gallegos, deputy county executive, said the county will release guidelines next week on how to prevent lead poisoning.
The county will also hold two virtual public meetings Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 to review the results of Zahran’s study with residents of the affected neighborhoods.
An East San Jose virtual community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Aug. 11 with Chavez and can be accessed via Zoom or by calling 669-219-2599, Webinar ID 93339943986# (participant ID not required).
The Aug. 12 meeting will also start at 6 p.m. Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who leads opposition to the airport closure, will host the meeting for his constituent base in South County near the San Martin Airport. The meeting can be accessed via Zoom or by calling 669-900-6833, Webinar ID 95709413535#.
The County Board of Supervisors is also hosting a special meeting on Aug. 17 at 6 p.m. with Zahran to go over the study findings.