SMO — State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, is calling on the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to investigate air pollution and blood-lead levels among residents living near Santa Monica Airport.

Lieu, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Air Quality whose 28th Senate District includes communities just east of SMO, sent a letter to the director of the department Monday in which he references a study by Duke University researchers released July 13 that found that children who live within 500 meters of airports in North Carolina have significantly higher levels of lead in their blood, a condition caused by piston aircraft using leaded aviation gasoline.

“At SMO children live far closer to the airport, within 500 feet, not 500 meters,” Lieu wrote in his letter to Debbie Raphael, director of the Department of Toxic and Substance Control. “Moreover, SMO is a general aviation airport with many small aircraft with piston engines that use aviation gasoline rather than jet fuel. I believe an investigation by [the department] will reveal high levels of lead exposure and blood lead in children, as well as adults, living near SMO.”

Exposure to lead has been shown to cause learning disabilities, behavior disorders and substandard academic performance in children. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that there is no “safe” level for blood lead in children.

Approximately 250,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lieu believes further study is required to determine if mitigation measures need to be taken and whether or not SMO should continue operating as an airport past 2015, when a lease agreement between the federal government and the city of Santa Monica is set to expire.

The FAA has said that while the agreement will come to an end, City Hall’s obligation to keep the airport open may not.

“In the FAA’s view, the city is obligated to keep Santa Monica Airport open through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal Airport Improvement Program grants,” said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA. “The FAA also believes that the city is separately obligated to operate Santa Monica Airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the land on which the airport is located cost-free from the federal government in 1948 … .”

Gregor said the FAA has taken steps to reduce the amount of time aircraft idle before taking off, therefore limiting jet emissions. Jet pilots are instructed to not fire up their engines until just before they get clearance for takeoff.

Also, idling pilots are instructed to have their engines facing down the runway until they’re ready to taxi into position for takeoff. This prevents exhaust from blowing directly into neighborhoods immediately north of the airport, Gregor said.

City Hall and the FAA have been at odds for years over operations at SMO, with residents living in Sunset Park complaining about noise and air pollution, demanding City Hall reduce flights or close the airport altogether.

City Hall tried to ban larger jets from landing at SMO out of concern that they may overshoot the runway and crash into homes sitting roughly 300 feet from both ends of the runway. The FAA challenged the ban and won. The FAA has offered to install runway safety areas at SMO, but so far City Hall has rejected it, saying it is substandard.

Lieu said the Duke University study builds upon earlier studies conducted at SMO that demonstrate the air, and likely the soil, is contaminated by lead and other particles such as black carbon. Those studies were conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and researchers at UCLA and USC. Both found that there were elevated levels of ultra-fine particles at homes near SMO, raising concerns about adverse health impacts.

“The consistency of multiple studies conducted at SMO, as well as at other general aviation airports, show that resident living near SMO are living in a toxic atmosphere,” Lieu wrote. “I believe these studies provide more than enough basis for [the Department of Toxic Substances Control] to conduct a formal investigation into the toxicity of the soil, vapor, and air surrounding SMO.”

Lieu requested a formal investigation as well as the filing of a formal environmental complaint.

Charlotte Fadipe, chief of media and press relations for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said officials have just received Lieu’s letter and are “looking into the situation and opportunities for us to investigate and provide assistance on this issue.”

The latest study, “A Geospatial Analysis of the Effects of Aviation Gasoline on Childhood Blood Lead Levels,” can be found online at

SMO is home to not only flight schools and Santa Monica College’s Bundy Campus, but also restaurants, art galleries and a public park featuring soccer fields used by kids and adults.

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