The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan to study lead emissions at regional airports has local activists calling for changes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.
On Jan. 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will investigate the effects of emissions from piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded fuel on public health and welfare.
According to the 2017 EPA National Emissions Inventory, Colorado has five airports of the top 100 lead-emitting airports nationally, including the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco Airport), which sits at 63.
“(The lead) falls to the ground as lead particulate, landing on our houses, schools, playgrounds and open space. It leaves dust that we breathe in; it coats our cars and enters our homes and workplaces. It builds up in soils, creating a toxic legacy for the unwitting gardener or hiker who then disturbs and redistributes it,” Charlene Willey of the Save Our Skies Alliance said.
The airport dropped 580 pounds of lead in 2017, according to the study, and residents have been complaining about higher traffic from the airport starting in 2018.
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That has activists and local parents worried about their children’s health.
Willey, a 28 year resident of Westminster, who lives about a mile away from the airport in the Green Knolls neighborhood, is very concerned about the lead coming from the airplanes and affecting people in their day-to-day lives.
“If you’re walking on a trail, if you’re gardening in your backyard, it’s unknown to us,” she said. “What is happening to us as we dig in the soils or just even walk through them?”
She also said she worries for her grandchildren, who live within 1.5 miles of the airport and go to school, play on playgrounds and in parks within a small radius of the planes taking off.
As well, she pointed to Standley Lake, the water supply for 300,000 residents of northern Metro Denver including Westminster, Northglenn and Thornton.
“If it’s in the soil that leaks into the water, we need to understand how that works,” she said.
California lead study
Willey points to a 2021 study of the Reid-Hillview Airport, which is located just outside of San Jose, Calif. In the EPA National Emissions Inventory, the Reid-Hillview airport sat at the 34th highest emitter of lead-emitting airports.
Dr. Sammy Zahran of Colorado State University helped complete the study on relationships between child blood lead levels and aviation gasoline exposure risk at that airport.
The study looked at homes less than a half-mile from the airport and those between a half-mile and mile and up to 1.5 miles from the airport.
He found that the levels of lead in children increased significantly the closer they were to the Reid-Hillview Airport and that children living downwind of the airport were even more likely to have significantly higher levels of lead in their blood. He also found the levels of lead in the test subjects’ blood correlated to piston-engine aircraft traffic as well as monthly quantities of aviation gasoline sold at the airport.
The study also found that children who go to school closer to the airport had higher blood lead levels than those who went to school farther away.
There is precedent with removing lead, he said, and he uses the removal of lead from gasoline in cars as an example.
“Blood lead levels in the United States have declined precipitously over the last 40 years,” he said. “(The) most effective in this regulatory effort was the removal of Tetraethyllead, which is this kind of form of lead that was a constituent in gasoline for cars, we still use that constituent in aviation gasoline.”
“The deposition of lead from the use of this gasoline accounts for two-thirds of the existing lead emissions in the United States,” he said.
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He also said that children who live near lead-emitting airports are consistently exposed to aviation gasoline. He contrasted it with the devastation of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, where it was only an episode in time. For those living near these airports, it is a consistent part of life, he said.
“This is a continuous, daily, unabated barrage of this known, dangerous, neurotoxic,” he said.
Lead on Bodies
Zahran said that there is no safe level of lead exposure. More lead exposure in a child leads to a lower IQ. However, there is a bigger effect on a child’s IQ after the initial exposure to lead.
“What this means is that the effect of exposing a child to small quantities of lead is more detrimental at low levels than high levels, so a unit addition of lead in the bloodstream is more consequential at lower blood levels,” he said.
Dr. P.J. Parmar, a family physician based in Aurora, said that the lead from the small aircraft comes out in the exhaust and falls over the flight paths. The lead can enter the body through inhalation, can be absorbed through the skin or can be eaten along with produce that has lead deposits on it.
Parmar previously helped clean up various pollutants after earning a master’s in environmental engineering.
“I now work in underserved medicine, exclusively with low income and colored patients. These populations are disproportionately subjected to environmental contaminants like the lead near airports we are talking about,” he said.
He said those who spend a lot of time outdoors and work or play in the dirt have higher lead exposures, especially if they are out near airports with small airplanes or those planes’ flight paths.
“Not only do kids get higher exposure from playing outside, but there is plenty of research showing that lead is especially damaging to developing brains. Even a small amount can result in poorer academic performance, so scientists and our government agree there is no safe amount for kids to have in their bodies,” he said.
He noted that 70 percent of kids in Colorado show lead in their bodies and studies done near small-aircraft airports show that kids living nearby have higher levels of lead in their blood.
He said high levels of lead can cause headaches, nausea and cancers. At low levels, it can cause poor cognition.
“Of course, these are all nonspecific symptoms that can be related to many agents, so it is hard to blame lead in any one single person with these symptoms. But when studies on a large scale, lead has been shown to have all these effects,” he said.
Roger Wehrheim, who has lived in Westminster’s Countryside neighborhood for 44 years, points to 2018 when the planes from the airport’s pilot schools began flying right above the neighborhoods and the schools.
He points to the Witt Elementary school and Standley Lake High School where many kids are outside and possibly exposed to the lead.
“Who knows how many times in a day they’re breathing in that exhaust?” he said.
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Laurie Muir, a Westminster resident and the former co-chair of the Superior Airport Noise Committee, discussed Eldorado PK-8 School which is near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.
“If I were the parent of a child at Eldorado elementary, I would be, you know, frankly worried because there is no safe level of lead,” she said.
Wehrheim said he would move, but his age restricts him from doing so.
Andy Le, a spokesperson for the City of Westminster, said that lead levels are very low in Standley Lake.
“The City tests for lead in Standley quarterly and it remains below testing limits or essentially undetectable,” he said.
But Willey said she is disappointed with governing officials reactions. She has written emails, letters, spoken through public comment sessions, made phone calls and talked with them personally.
“There’s zero response,” she said.
Jefferson County Commissioners, public health officials, Westminster City Council, and airport officials were all included in leadership sitting silent on the issue, she said.
“It’s jaw-dropping,” she said. “The arrogance, misinformation.”
When asked if Willey has ever considered testing her blood or her family’s blood for lead, she said no.
“I’m scared to, because I don’t know what to do about it,” she said.