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Children near airports are exposed to high levels of lead

A new study published in the journal PNAS Lexus has found that, despite policymakers’ efforts to reduce lead exposure since the 1970s, children living near a California airport have higher levels of lead in their blood, due to the fact that leaded gasoline is still used by piston-engine aircrafts across the United States.

Over the past 40 years, the blood lead levels of U.S. children declined significantly due to policies that forbidden the use of lead in plumbing, paint, food cans, and automotive gasoline. According to many scientists, the decision to phase-out the use of tetraethyl lead from automotive gasoline (under provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1970) was the most effective of these policies.

However, leaded gasoline has not disappeared completely, and remains a major part of aviation gasoline, being used by about 170,000 piston-engine aircrafts nationwide (accounting for two-thirds of lead emissions in the United States). As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, about four million people reside within half a mile of airports servicing piston-engine planes, and nearly 600 elementary or secondary schools are located close to such facilities.

By analyzing the blood lead levels of children under six years of age during a ten-year period (2011-2020) who resided near the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California, the scientists found that many children living near the airport had blood lead levels exceeding the California Department of Public Health-defined threshold of 4.5 micrograms per deciliter.

The analysis showed that, for children living a mile or more from the airport, the probability of lead levels exceeding this threshold was 21.4 percent lower than for those living within a half mile of the airport. Moreover, children residing east of the airport (downwind) were 2.18 times more likely to have blood lead levels above the threshold of concern.

“Across an ensemble of tests, we find consistent evidence that the blood lead levels of children residing near the airport are pushed upward by the deposition of leaded aviation gasoline. This indicates we should support policy efforts to limit aviation lead emissions to safeguard the welfare of at-risk children,” concluded study lead author Sammy Zahran, a professor of Demography at Colorado State University.       

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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