Blood lead levels near San Jose airport are average, despite alarm
Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Despite Santa Clara County officials describing lead exposure from Reid-Hillview Airport as a decades-long health crisis, a county-commissioned study shows elevated blood lead  levels consistent with the state average.

The report, released last week, found that out of 17,000 blood samples from children ages 0-18 within 1.5 miles of the airport, only 1.7% have elevated lead levels which call for further testing and observation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is between 1.5% and 2.6% depending on age.

The levels are also similar to neighboring counties. North of Santa Clara County, 1.5% of Alameda County children were found to have elevated blood levels, while approximately 2% of Santa Cruz County children showed elevated lead levels, based on data collected in 2018 by nonprofit research organization Population Reference Bureau.

More than 4.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is considered an elevated lead level, as defined by the CDC, and medical intervention is required when more than 45 micrograms of lead are detected in a child.

Santa Clara County officials, led by Supervisor Cindy Chavez, have been gunning to close the airport for years. They say the airport signals issues of racial inequity because it endangers families living in vulnerable East San Jose neighborhoods, including communities of color, and the land could be better suited for affordable housing. Opponents of closing the airport say it helps alleviate air traffic for smaller planes and can be used in emergency situations.

“They’re not bringing up the fact that if unleaded fuel was brought to the airport, the problem goes away,” San Martin Neighborhood Alliance President Stephen McHenry told San José Spotlight. “They don’t want that brought out very loudly because then they lose their rallying cry and their sense of urgency and crisis to close the airport.”

McHenry and the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance have rallied against efforts to close Reid-Hillview Airport, saying the danger posed by the leaded fuel is overblown and the airport is necessary for use during disaster relief emergencies. County supervisors voted in 2018 to explore the possibility of consolidating the airport’s aviation uses with the San Martin Airport.

The county has hosted at least six news conferences since the report’s release, all of which have been reposted on Chavez’s official Facebook page. Chavez declined comment when asked about the report showing elevated blood lead levels in children near Reid-Hillview Airport being consistent with the state average.

Findings

Though children between 1 and 5 across the U.S. have an average blood lead level of 1 to 1.3 micrograms, the Reid-Hillview study led by Dr. Sammy Zahran measured blood samples from local youth under 18. The average blood lead level measured in the county-commissioned study is 1.83 micrograms.

County officials chose Zahran, who authored the 2017 study on blood lead levels in children during the Flint, Michigan water crisis, to lead the Reid-Hillview study. The Colorado State University professor of demography and epidemiology worked with the research nonprofit Mountain Data Group to collect the 17,000 blood samples from children living near the airport between 2011 and 2020.

Santa Clara County brought in pediatric epidemiologist Dr. Bruce Lanphear to review Zahran’s study and field questions regarding its findings. He said measuring lead in the bloodstream of solely toddlers—rather than also including teenagers—is a better indicator of negative health effects from lead exposure on the brain. According to the report, the average age of children tested for blood lead levels was approximately 3.

But small amounts of lead can still deteriorate cognitive functions despite the CDC’s threshold, Lanphear told San José Spotlight.

“What some of my research shows is that not only is there no threshold or safe lead level, but for a given exposure we actually see steeper detriments, greater IQ losses at the lowest measurable levels,” he said. “So if you look at the first microgram per deciliter increase, it’s somewhere around one to one and a half IQ point (loss).”

For years, advocates of closing Reid-Hillview Airport have blamed leaded fuel from airplanes for polluting the air and endangering nearby children.

Chavez and her board colleagues began the process to close the airport when they voted in 2018 to stop accepting Federal Aviation Administration grants for the airport. Then last November, the Board of Supervisors voted to prepare plans for repurposing the 180 acres of airport land—East San Jose community leaders have since gotten involved in the process.

“We fully expect (Chavez) to introduce a motion at Tuesday’s board meeting to close the airport,” McHenry said. “Her language is highly inflammatory and it’s designed to rile up the residents and get demands for action. We strongly believe that they want to close so the developers can do houses and condos.”

Comparisons to Flint, Michigan

Proponents of the study claim blood lead level increases seen in children in the wind path east of the airport are similar to those seen in Flint, Michigan during the 2015 water crisis. Residents under 18 living near the airport had an average blood lead level of 1.83 micrograms, according to the study, while those living in the wind path east of the airport average 2.2 micrograms—still well below the CDC’s criteria for elevated blood lead levels.

The average blood lead levels in Flint children before the water crisis was approximately 2.4 micrograms. After running water was switched to the Flint River, blood lead levels reached between 2.8 and 3.1 micrograms.

Community leaders in East San Jose have rallied around the county’s claims that the study exposed a health crisis among children residing near the airport.

“This is something the neighborhood has been very passionate about initiating, and we’ve come to support them in elevating their voices,” Latina Coalition President Gabriela Chavez-Lopez told San José Spotlight. “Our communities already have a lot of strikes against us, especially in lower income communities. There’s a lot of things we can do, but (Reid-Hillview Airport) is one of those things that’s in our immediate control to help protect these kids.”

Editor’s Note: Added further clarification to the state average of blood lead levels in children.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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