It started with local chatter about the poor health of young children living in one disadvantaged and often-overlooked area near a small airport. It can end with the U.S. Senate acting to prevent lead exposure in one of the last American industries that still sells and uses a harmful pollutant.
Study concludes lead levels in East San Jose on par with the Flint water crisis
In 2021, community concerns spiked near a local airport—Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose—so Santa Clara County sponsored a peer-reviewed scientific study on lead exposure. The conclusions were alarming and clear: the airplanes using leaded aviation fuel at the airport were causing significantly elevated blood lead levels in children. The kids living downwind from the airport had lead levels comparable with those detected during the peak of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Banning dangerous fuel
Santa Clara County acted quickly and banned the sale of leaded aviation fuel—known as “avgas”—at county-operated airports. That could have been the happy ending of a local story, but things took a weird turn. As community leaders celebrated the environmental justice win while simultaneously petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to ban leaded avgas nationwide, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got involved—on the side of polluters.
Battling backward bureaucracy
The FAA initiated an investigation and suggested it may take legal action to block Santa Clara County’s rightful ban on leaded avgas sales. Understandably, given the seriousness of the matter—exposure to even a small amount of lead can have severe health effects, particularly in developing children—Santa Clara County leaders were up in arms and raised their voices. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren spoke directly with President Joe Biden about the FAA’s backward attempt to stop the local governments’ effort to protect low-income communities of color from lead poisoning.
Thankfully, the president agreed with Santa Clara County and the FAA entered into an agreement with Santa Clara County that suspended the bogus investigation. The agreement set forth a framework for the county to participate in a pilot project to study best practices for transitioning airports nationwide to unleaded avgas. It was a needed detente for East San Jose families and a step in the right direction for other majority-minority communities adjacent to general aviation airports around the country.
FAA reauthorization lobbying … and an exemption
But it seems not everyone wants clean, breathable air and healthy children. Some wanted to protect leaded avgas, and small pilot advocacy groups promoted a false narrative that switching away from leaded fuel too fast is dangerous. They seem to have the ears of some in Congress.
Unfortunately, successful lobbying led to the inclusion of a provision in the House of Representatives’ FAA reauthorization bill that requires the sale of leaded avgas. Fortunately, the California Democratic Congressional Delegation under Rep. Lofgren’s strategic leadership was able to secure an exemption for Santa Clara County before the House passed that reauthorization bill in July.
Enacting a nationwide ban
The problem is: Santa Clara County is not the only area in the country that deserves to be free of airborne lead pollution. California leaders like us want the Senate to strike the avgas section of the House-passed bill so all airports nationwide can transition to unleaded fuel.
Every major industry other than aviation has fully-realized lead protections. In fact, unleaded fuel is already the norm for large commercial jets, and the safe alternative must be what’s sold and used for small planes too. The Senate now has the chance to protect the estimated 5 million Americans—including 360,000 children—who live near one of the 20,000 airports serving the 170,000 piston-engine aircraft that continue to use leaded fuel.
We must not let the FAA reauthorization provide a green light for the continued poisoning of disadvantaged children across the nation. Instead, let’s work together toward an unleaded future.
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren represents the 18th District of California, which includes communities in Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Susan Ellenberg is president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and represents District 4. Cindy Chavez represents District 2 on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.