People living near airports that service piston-engine aircraft are disproportionately exposed to lead, a dangerous neurotoxin.
A study published this week in PNAS Nexus found that children living near the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California, had elevated blood lead levels. They’ve pinpointed piston-engine aircrafts at airports like the one in California as a source of lead exposure for children.
Overall blood lead levels in U.S. children have gone down significantly in the last half century. Since the 1970s, policymakers have removed lead from everyday items like pipes, food cans, and vehicle gasoline. But despite those efforts, airports that house and service piston-engine aircraft, which mainly use leaded aviation fuel, continue to pollute the air. These are small, single- or two-propeller airplanes, such as training Cessna airplanes, small commercial aircraft, and the planes commonly seen trailing advertisement banners.
“Lead-formulated aviation gasoline (avgas) is the primary source of lead emissions in the United States today, consumed by over 170,000 piston-engine aircraft,” according to the new paper.
The researchers analyzed 14,000 blood samples, taken from 2011 to 2020 from children under 6 years old living near the California airport, to gauge exposure to lead. They found that blood lead levels increased the closer the children lived to the airport. Blood lead levels were also 2.18 times higher than a health department threshold of 4.5 micrograms per deciliter in children who lived east, or downwind, of the airport, according to the study.
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