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Lead In The Sky: A Hidden Health Crisis | Community Corner


by Save Our Skies Alliance

Photo: depositphotos

It has been a difficult summer for those who enjoy Colorado’s beautiful outdoors. Front Range air quality deteriorated to “unhealthy” levels at least 18 times this year. That means that the EPA may move parts of the Front Range from the “serious” to “severe” category under their classification of non-attainment areas. All this has been made worse by the lung-damaging haze of wildfire smoke that obscures our blue skies.

Unfortunately, there is another toxin present in our air that few of us know about – LEAD!

Lead was prohibited in paint in 1978, and removed from the gas in our cars in 1996. But there remains a significant source of lead in the skies above us… it is in the aviation gas that smaller, piston engine (propeller) planes use. And, if you live anywhere near a Front Range airport, there is a huge source of this lead dust raining down on your home, schools, playgrounds and open space every day. A just-released study of the impact of lead-based fuels on children living near the Reid-Hillview airport in Santa Clara, CA clearly defines this hidden health risk. 

New Science on Lead in the Air

Results of this comprehensive and controlled 10-year analysis showed blood lead level increases in children living near the airport were similar to those seen in kids affected by the Flint, Michigan water crisis. While those who lived within a half mile of the airport were most affected, the peer-reviewed study showed that children living downwind from the airport had lead blood levels of .40 micrograms per deciliter higher than children living upwind from the airport. For context, lead levels detected during the peak of the Flint water crisis were between .35 and .45 micrograms per deciliter over baseline.

The study also examined levels during times of maximum exposure to air traffic for children within a half-mile of the airport and estimated an increase of .83 micrograms per deciliter at peak times – significantly higher than the levels seen in Flint.

Dr. Sammy Zahran, a Professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the Colorado School of Public Health, and the Mountain Data Group conducted this study. Zahran had previously investigated lead contamination of drinking water supplies in Flint. The Reid-Hillview study is available online at news.sccgov.org.

It turns out that the small size of lead exhaust from piston engine airplanes (13 nm average) has the potential of rapidly penetrating the lung defenses and gaining direct access to the brain through nasal passages (Griffith 2020). By contrast, most lead dibromide particles inhaled in the past from motor vehicle exhaust would have been flushed from the lungs by the mucosal system.

Save Our Skies Alliance (SOS) is a grassroots organization formed to represent citizens who are impacted by the noise, air, and lead pollution from Front Range airports. For more information on lead in the skies and how it may affect you, visit the Save Our Skies Alliance (SOS) website at: saveourskiesalliance.org.

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