Reid-Hillview Airport Airborne Lead Study

County of Santa Clara Files Petition Urging EPA to Initiate Nationwide Ban of Leaded Aviation Gasoline

On August 24, 2021, the County of Santa Clara, together with a nationwide coalition of community groups represented by Earthjustice, filed a petition​ urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate a nationwide ban of leaded aviation gasoline.

This action followed a vote by the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors at a hearing on August 17, 2021. At the hearing, the Board unanimously voted to take prompt action to protect the 52,000 residents who live, work, and go to school near Reid-Hillview Airport in East San José from lead contamination caused by aircraft using the facility – including banning use of leaded fuel and pursuing paths toward closure of the airport before 2031.

The vote came on the heels of a County-commissioned study released earlier this month that found the ongoing use of leaded aviation fuel has resulted in an increase in blood lead levels on par with those detected in children during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis.

County staff responded with a set of recommendations that include closing the 180-acre site in order to effectively address ongoing lead contamination. The FAA provided the County with grants over the years that the FAA asserts obligates the County to use the site as an airfield until 2031.

The County recommendation considered the East San José community in historic context as an area that has been harmed in the past by government actions and neglect. The lead pollution from the airport exacerbates these injuries. Health organizations agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood, and exposure to even a small amount of lead has an effect on cognitive ability, particularly in developing children who absorb lead more efficiently than older children and adults.

The area surrounding Reid-Hillview is home to 52,000 mainly Latino and Asian individuals, nearly 13,000 of whom are children, with 21 schools and childcare centers within a mile and a half of the airport.

In addition to site closure, actions approved by the Board of Supervisors include:

  • Petition the Environmental Protection Agency to make a finding that lead emissions from general aviation aircraft endanger public health, and issue proposed emission standards.
  • Funding to have the study published in a scientific journal, which would allow for its findings to be considered by the EPA in future reviews of air quality standards for lead and to support the petition of the EPA to make the “endangerment findings.”
  • Continue to secure a supply of unleaded aviation fuel for the County Airports System.
  • Look into the possibility of a broader study of airborne lead emissions at general aviation airports, partnering with the California Department of Public Health and other jurisdictions with airports.


Additional requests from Supervisor Cindy Chavez direct staff to offer expertise to other jurisdictions seeking consultation on airborne airport lead; undertake a robust education and awareness campaign on lead health risks and next steps; update County health assessments with information from the new study; and begin testing lead levels for incarcerated youth at juvenile facilities.

The Board of Supervisors voted in November to study how to repurpose the land, and has been holding community meetings to best determine the wants and needs of residents in the surrounding area. This process will continue to help guide future use of the 180-acre airport site.

BACKGROUND - VIRTUAL COMMUNITY MEETINGS

On August 11 and August 12, County staff, Supervisor Cindy Chavez and Supervisor Mike Wasserman held virtual community meetings to share results of a study on airborne lead emissions at Reid-Hillview Airport in San José.  The meetings—one for the neighborhood surrounding Reid-Hillview Airport and a second for South County residents near San Martin Airport – provided attendees with the opportunity to learn about the Reid Hillview Airport Lead Study findings and ask questions.   

Panelists at the virtual meetings included: Dr. Sammy Zahran, PhD, the lead study author; Dr. Bruce Lamphear, M.D., M.P.H., a public health physician and pediatric epidemiologist specializing in environmental exposures; and Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos, who is overseeing the study.

The San José community meeting on August 11 and the South County meeting on August 12​​​​ are online. The meeting presentations are in EnglishSpanish and Vietnamese​.

BACKGROUND - Lead Study 

In December 2018, the Board of Supervisors directed County staff to study whether there was any link between lead-based airplane emissions at Reid-Hillview Airport and blood lead levels of children living near the airport.   

The County engaged Dr. Sammy Zahran to study lead emissions at Reid-Hillview Airport.  Dr. Zahran is a Professor of Demography and Assistant Chair of the Dept. of Economics at Colorado State University and a Professor in the Dept. of Epidemiology in the Colorado School of Public Health.   

The Study analyzed blood lead levels of children within 1.5 miles of Reid-Hillview Airport, piston-engine aircraft activity at the airport, and weather and prevailing winds for the study period to establish whether there is a significant relationship between airplane emissions and blood lead levels.  Dr. Zahran and his team reviewed over 300,000 blood lead records provided by the California Department of Public Health, flight records from the Federal Aviation Administration, and weather data available from Dark Sky.
 

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