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Protestors joined the Venice Neighborhood Council-sponsored Earth Day rally on the corner of Bundy Drive and Airport Avenue on Friday afternoon. Those who attended want to see an end to the use of lead in airplane fuel. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMO — Residents living in Venice and Mar Vista gathered at the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Airport on Friday to stage an Earth Day rally against the use of leaded fuel by owners of propeller planes that fly over homes nearby.

Lead, long banned from normal car fuels and many household products, presents a recognized danger to the development of small children, as well as other health risks including seizures and memory loss amongst adults.

It’s still used in fuel for piston-powered aircraft, which fly out of the airport on a 210-degree heading over the Penmar Golf Course and then Venice neighborhoods and schools.

Lead in fuel exhaust is tiny, particulate matter that disperses through the atmosphere and deposits based on wind or other weather patterns, like rain.

The rally’s organizers specifically called out the six flight schools operating at SMO, saying that the piston-powered aircraft used by the schools account for 40 percent of the flights out of SMO.

According to the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee release about the event, members chose the issue for Earth Day because lead is a cumulative toxin.

“They want to expose this condition of lead still being used in aviation fuel, where it’s been outlawed in automobile gasoline, in paints. It’s very problematic for young people in schools,” said Martin Rubin, member of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, which also took part in the protest.

Rubin, a resident of Mar Vista, noted that students at the flight schools travel in a southerly loop around the Mar Vista and Venice neighborhoods.

In response to such accusations, airport and city officials point to two studies — conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the federal Environmental Protection Agency — which examined lead levels produced by the airport.

“The AQMD did the most exhaustive study,” said Airport Manager Robert Trimborn. “It looked at the lead during that study, and found no exceedences at all. The EPA then ratcheted down the exposure level ten-fold … and still couldn’t find any evidence that lead exposure exceeded federal standards.”

That study did find, however, that while at no point did lead concentrations exceed the new, much lower limit of 150 nanograms per cubic meter, lead levels in the air near the runways were higher than elsewhere in the urban Los Angeles region, said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

The EPA study showed similar results.

Scientists monitored the airport lead levels in two phases, one during the summer and one during the winter, and tested soil in parks and around homes.

The winter phase consisted of two, four-day periods, focusing on weekends when the airport would be the busiest, while the summer phase used one week in July.

Overall, the EPA found no elevated lead levels in the parks or on airport property. Two of the surveyed homes did show elevated lead levels, but the EPA report suggests that lead had little to do with the airport.

The EPA did reiterate that its study served primarily to update its own air quality monitoring models rather than as a risk assessment of any kind.

Santa Monica City Hall considers its actions on lead exposure ahead of the game, both by offering the airport up for examination by the EPA and SCAQMD as well as working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and EPA to develop unleaded airplane fuels, said Kate Vernez, assistant to the City Manager.

Those assurances don’t phase those concerned about the negative impacts of lead exposure.

“There’s a high concentration of population there, and any amount of lead is harmful,” Rubin said.

Although he understands lead can’t be taken out of airplane fuel overnight, Rubin sees the vehicles that need leaded fuels as things of the past.

“Now, we have new cars that burn unleaded fuel, that are quieter and less polluting,” he said. “And aircraft? They’re the same ones used years ago, they’re not upgrading.”

ashley@smdp.com