Lead from Reid-Hillview Airport matches Flint, Michigan water

Lead emissions from planes flying in and out of East San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport are placing thousands of predominately low-income children who live nearby at an elevated risk of permanent developmental issues, a new study has found.

The study, which was commissioned by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last year, analyzed 17,000 blood samples collected in 2011-2020 from children under the age of 18 who lived within a mile and a half of the airport. It found that those who lived within a half-mile of Reid Hillview had significantly higher levels of lead in their blood than those who lived farther away — a difference of about .40 micrograms per deciliter, or one-tenth of a liter.

In Flint, Michigan during the city’s peak water contamination crisis, lead levels ranged from .35 to .45 micrograms per deciliter over normal, according to the study.

Elected officials and nearby residents who have long pushed for closing the airport say the study validates their biggest fears that pollutants from aircraft using the airport harm neighborhood residents. They hope it’ll help county officials convince the Federal Aviation Administration to shut the airport down sooner than 2031 — currently the earliest potential closure date based on federal grant obligations.

“What this very thorough study proves is that we literally have a crisis on our hands,” County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who originally asked for the study, said at a news conference. “This is a public health issue, it’s an environmental justice issue and it’s an equity issue because the people who live around Reid-Hillview are among those that are least affluent in our community.”

Lead is a neurotoxin that, even at low levels in the blood, can stunt a child’s physical and cognitive development. The health effects, particularly on children up to age 6, can include lower IQ, decreased attention span and academic underperformance. Adults whose brains are more fully developed are at far less risk of lead poisoning, though pregnant women could pass it along to a developing child, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

At Reid-Hillview, the small planes using the airport almost exclusively run on leaded aviation fuel.  Although leaded fuel was banned by the federal government in vehicles decades ago, the same standard has yet to be set for aviation fuel.

SAN JOSE – APRIL 27: An airplane descends past a row of palm trees at Eastridge Mall for a landing at Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, April 27, 2020. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group) 

Large jets, like most commercial planes that fly out of the region’s largest airports, do not rely on unleaded fuel like smaller, piston-engine planes that use private or county-run airports.

When Reid-Hillview opened in 1939, the 180-acre airport was surrounded by farms and orchards. But in the decades since, thousands of homes and almost two dozen schools and childcare centers were built almost right up to the airport’s boundaries. The county purchased the airport in 1961, and today more than 52,000 people live within a mile-and-a-half radius, according to county statistics.

As more people moved in and flight operations increased over the years, residents began calling for the airport’s closure, citing lead pollution from fuel, noise pollution from loud planes flying low overhead and a desire to convert the valuable land to critically needed housing for the region.

Gloria Gutierrez-Lechuga, 68, of East San Jose’s Cassell neighborhood, welled up with tears on Tuesday just thinking about the academic struggles her children faced growing up, fearing the lead exposure could make things even more difficult for her three grandchildren living in the area.

“I’m very frustrated,” she said through a translator. “Why do we have to live with this just because we live in a poor area? Our children are not able to defend themselves and now they’re just condemned to the toxication of lead.”

Reid-Hillview serves as the home of numerous private pilots, flight schools and San Jose State University’s aviation program. Supporters of keeping the airport open say it would be a burden for flight students to drive to San Martin Airport and argue the county could consider other options to address lead concerns.

David Goodin, a private pilot and flight instructor who flies out of Reid-Hillview, said county officials could tackle the problem by transitioning the planes running out of the airport to unleaded fuel. Although unleaded fuel is not as widely available, some California airports like San Carlos Airport offer the product to their pilots.

“The county could choose to really support its constituents and protect the health and safety of the people around the airport by bringing in this already available unleaded fuel, but instead they just want to close it right away because it just appears that developers are interested in developing it,” Goodin said. “That’s politics as usual.”

The new study is not the first to flag alarming lead emissions at the small San Jose airport.

A 2008 study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranked Reid-Hillview as 25th among 3,414 airports across the country in the amount of lead emitted annually — an estimated 1,279 pounds.  And in February 2020, the EPA reported that Reid-Hillview was one of the few American airports where lead emissions exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standard.

County leaders took their first step toward closing Reid-Hillview in December 2018 when they voted to stop accepting new federal grants for the airport, which would allow them to shut it down starting in 2031. They also hired a consultant to study alternate uses for the land.

Then in November 2020, the county supervisors voted to explore the possibility of consolidating Reid-Hillview’s aviation with the San Martin Airport, approximately 23 miles southeast of it. Residents in the San Martin have since spoken out against that proposition, accusing the county of trying to dump Reid Hillview’s problems onto them.

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