Santa Monica Airport (SMO) has continued to sell leaded aviation gasoline (avgas) at its facilities and allow airplanes to fly into SMO that utilize leaded avgas. A recent study focused on the Reid-Hillview Airport, Commissioned by County of Santa Clara noted that “Comprehensive and controlled study reviewed 10 years of data; findings include that blood lead level increases in children downwind from the site are similar to those seen in the Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis.”

This was particularly impactful due to other studies by the County of Santa Clara: Office of Communications and Public Affairs found essentially that the leaded avgas created significant risk and that even a little lead is still too much.

A 2010 study by the United States National Emissions Inventory found that leaded aviation fuel emitted “from aircraft using leaded aviation gasoline (avgas) is currently the largest source of lead in air in the United States, constituting about 50% of lead emissions in the 2005 National Emissions.” A more recent 2021 study is suggesting that the avgas emissions contributions to air lead levels is currently closer 70%.

While the situation with Reid-Hillview Airport seems like new news, the reality is that this information has been known by SMO and the City of Santa Monica for at least 10 years. Miranda et al note that, “A study at the Santa Monica airport in California found that the highest lead levels occur close to airport runways and decrease exponentially with distance from an airport, dropping to background levels at about 1 km.” Miranda et al’s 2011 study utilized, “… geographic information systems to approximate areas surrounding airports in which lead from avgas may be present in elevated concentrations in air and may also be deposited to soil.” They concluded that a significant association was found between potential exposure to lead emissions from avgas and blood lead levels in children, especially within 1 km.

A major concern is how might the leaded avgas exposure impact the children living near, playing in adjacent parks, and going to school, to these lead levels emissions. Apparently, there is a large body of research that demonstrates negative health effects, including learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, associated with lead exposure levels well below the CDC action level. Studies by Miranda et al. suggest that early childhood blood lead levels as low as 2 µg/dL can have significant impacts on academic performance as measured by end-of-grade test scores. Brink et al that found the proportion of children with blood lead levels ≥ 10 μ g/dL was 1.24% in the highest air lead counties, and the proportion with blood lead levels ≥ 10 μ g/dL was 0.36% in the lowest air lead counties.

In response to this body of research, the CDC has stated that there is no safe level for blood lead in children.

Internationally the trend in leaded avgas elimination and improvement in childhood blood lead levels has been found. For instance, a study from Bombay India looked for pediatric blood lead levels (BLLs) by comparing BLLs collected in 2002 (after use of leaded gasoline was phased out in Bombay) to those collected in a study conducted by the George Foundation in 1997 (when leaded gasoline was still used in Bombay). Their study demonstrated a significant success of the public health system in Bombay, India, which was achieved by the removal of lead from gasoline.

In Korea a study was performed to verify a change in the longitudinal trend of blood lead levels for the Korean population, before and after the regulation of leaded gasoline, which occurred between 1987 and 1993 in Korea. That study concluded, that regulation of leaded gasoline significantly contributed to the rapid change in blood lead concentrations.

In Madrid Spain a study evaluated intelligence quotient (IQ) of local children exposed to leaded gas and determined that a decrease in blood lead levels in these children prevented a loss of between 135,391 and 144,153 IQ points. Their study assessed the current economic valuation of these points in terms of the productivity gained throughout the working life of this cohort of children and ultimately concluded that the economic benefits derived from the decision to ban leaded gasoline are very high.

Our Local Schools

Elementary schools closest to Santa Monica Airport are Mar Vista, Richland and Grant. While these elementary schools east of SMO schools may be over the toxic lead emission 1000-meter distance we must factor in that most incoming flights are over the region covering these schools and the west to east ocean breeze, most common in these areas, would expectantly move greater amounts of airborne lead emissions eastward towards these children.

Pre-schools closest to SMO are Stepping Stone Child Care and Preschool, Bright Horizons at Ocean Park, and Hill and Dale Family Learning Center. Of note both Bright Horizons at Ocean Park and Hill and Dale Family Learning Center are well within the toxic lead emission 1000-meter distance and are therefore these young children are under constant exposure.

At this point what is irrefutable:

1. Avgas is the largest source of lead in air in the United States.

2. SMO sells leaded avgas and allows aircraft using leaded avgas into its airport.

3. Blood lead levels in our children near the airport has profound and drastic short and long-term health consequences.

Since these three issues are clearly evident the City of Santa Monica and SMO must assume responsibility for the sale of leaded avgas and allowing (leaded avgas) aircrafts to utilize the facilities at SMO. Continuing to allow the sale of avgas and piston aircraft using leaded avgas fuel at SMO puts the onus of responsibly for any subsequent health related consequences for the adjacent pediatric population, squarely on the shoulders of the City of Santa Monica and SMO.

The City of Santa Monica is not alone in this challenging situation since the “Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to ban the sale of leaded avgas at Reid-Hillview Airport and to press the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, to close the facility earlier than 2031, when conditions connected to FAA grant funding are set to expire.” The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors understands that the FAA will likely oppose both efforts, but they plan to continue to press them to take action. They determined that “We can’t, … as a local community, sit by and leave children exposed with permanent damage and permanent harm while the federal government takes however long it may take.”

There is now a clear consensus that “significantly reducing lead emissions from gasoline-powered aircraft will require the leadership and strategic guidance of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a broad-based and sustained commitment by other government agencies and the nation’s pilots, airport managers, aviation fuel and service suppliers, and aircraft manufacturers…”

The City of Santa Monica and SMO can no longer pretend that they are not aware of the serious health consequences associated with the sale of leaded avgas and instead stand along with Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to ban the sale of leaded avgas at SMO.

Submitted by Dr. Charles L. Blum