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Children living near airports being exposed to ‘dangerous’ levels of lead

Researchers analyzed the blood lead levels of children under 6-years-old over a 10-year period, from 2011 to 2020.

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Pilot boarding private jet in hangar
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By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Children who live near airports are still being exposed to "dangerous" levels of lead, warns a new study.

Researchers found that youngsters living near an airport in California have higher lead levels in their blood than those who lived further away.

Since leaded gasoline is still used by piston-engine aircraft all around the United States, researchers believe children are being exposed to "toxic" lead levels - despite efforts to reduce lead exposure since the 1970s.

The blood lead levels of children in the U.S. declined "significantly" over the last four decades due to policies that removed lead from paint, plumbing, food cans, and petrol.

Scientists generally agree that the phase-out of tetraethyl lead from petrol under provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1970 was the most effective of the policies.

However, leaded gasoline hasn’t disappeared entirely. It remains a standard part of aviation fuel and is used by an estimated 170,000 piston-engine aircraft around the U.S.

Today, the use of lead-formulated aviation gasoline accounts for as much as two-thirds of lead emissions in the United States.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that four million people reside within half a mile of an airport servicing piston-engine planes. Around 600 schools are located near such facilities.

Researchers analyzed the blood lead levels of children under six years of age over a 10-year period, from 2011 to 2020, who lived near one such airport, Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California.

The team found the probability that a child living near Reid-Hillview Airport had a blood lead level that exceeded the California Department of Public Health-defined threshold of 4.5 micrograms per decilitre increased the closer the child lived to the airport.

The researchers also noted that the blood lead levels were "much higher" when children lived East - downwind - of the airport.

The findings, published in the journal PNAS Nexus, also showed that child blood levels increased with piston-engine aircraft traffic and quantities of leaded aviation gasoline sold at the airport.

Study lead author Professor Sammy Zahran said: "For children living a mile or more away from the airport, the probability of a blood sample that exceeded the threshold was 21.4 percent lower than for children living within a half mile of the airport.

"With respect to geographic direction, children residing east of the airport were 2.18 times more likely to present a blood lead level above the threshold of concern."

Adding to the evidence that exposure to aviation gasoline is a health risk to children, the researchers also found that the blood lead levels of children living within half-a-mile of the airport are especially responsive to an increase in piston-engine aircraft traffic.

Prof. Zahran of Colorado State University added: “Across an ensemble of tests, we find consistent evidence that the blood lead levels of children residing near the airport are pushed upward by the deposition of leaded aviation gasoline.

“This indicates we should support policy efforts to limit aviation lead emissions to safeguard the welfare of at-risk children.”

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