Westchester: Scientists testify on effects of lead in children living near airports
By Gary Walker
Scientists from a variety of different backgrounds and pilots who fly out of Santa Monica Airport testified at a hearing held by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) in Westchester Sept. 18 addressing air quality and how lead can alter the human body.
High levels of lead have been found in neighborhoods adjacent to general aviation airfields, various studies have shown, and scientists say the compound can have deleterious effects on those who live near these airports.
Lieu, the chairman of the state Senate Select Committee on Air Quality, represents communities that are home to airports including Hawthorne and Torrance, and Mar Vista, which borders Santa Monica Airport.
Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Westchester), whose district includes Los Angeles International Airport, joined Lieu to hear from the pilots’ representatives as well as from the scientists and the public.
The hearing was designed to give legislators as well as the public an opportunity to learn about pollution effects from aviation fuel. Aviation gas, or av gas, contains lead and approximately 75 percent of all small airplanes use this fuel.
Lieu said he was alarmed to learn about the effects that lead can have on children. Rebecca Anthopolos, a statistician for Children’s Environmental Health Initiative School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, said via video conference that high levels of lead can cause youngsters to lose IQ points.
“That was very troubling,” said Lieu, who has two young sons under the age of 10.
Asked by Lieu if she thinks the results of her study would be the same at other general aviation airports, including Santa Monica, Anthopolos replied, “I would think that our study would have the same results.”
The scientists who were invited to speak added to prior testimony given at a Dec. 8, 2011 air quality hearing that Lieu held in West Los Angeles.
A study by UCLA professor Suzanne Paulson released in 2009 found a high level of lead in ultrafine particulates at Santa Monica Airport, primarily east of the airfield near Mar Vista and West Los Angeles.
And in July that same year, a study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency cited high levels of lead in the bloodstreams of minors who live near airports in North Carolina.
UCLA professor of environmental sciences Dr. John R. Froines, who was part of the first panel of scientists to present their findings before the select committee, has published a scientific analysis on ultrafine particles and how they can enter lung tissue and remain there for long periods of time. According to his analysis, airborne particulate matter can increase asthma and other respiratory diseases in children, can decrease lung function and development in children and cause cardiovascular disease in adults.
Dr. Fokion Egolfopoulos, a University of Southern California professor from the Department of Aerospace and Engineering, said due to the makeup of most airplane engines, it could be a difficult task to change how an airplane engine can function without leaded gasoline.
“It will not be easy,” he warned. “In my opinion, if anybody promises that they will be able to deliver a better (airplane) gasoline tomorrow that will operate at an octane number higher than 130, you should be very skeptical.”
Representatives from the South Coast Air Quality Management District also made a presentation to the committee.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates aviation gasoline and is working with manufacturers on a new type of fuel for airplanes, including alternatives to aviation gas.
The Airplane Owners and Pilots Association was represented by John Pfeiffer. “Our organization continues to be committed to the transition to a cleaner, unleaded gasoline,” Pfeiffer told the committee.
The FAA responded to a letter sent by Lieu regarding aviation gasoline, listing four initiatives that the agency believes can assist in developing a replacement for aviation gas.
One of the initiatives is an agency performance metric that states that a “replacement fuel for leaded aviation gasoline is available by 2018 that is useable by most general aviation aircraft.”
Additionally, the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act established an unleaded gasoline research and development program and private sector companies have applied for supplemental type certificates for specific piston engine and airframe models to operate with unleaded fuel formulations, wrote FAA Assistant Administrator for Policy, International Affairs and Environment Julie Oettinger.
Many of the pilots who spoke at the Sept. 18 hearing said they were willing to do whatever was necessary to make the airport as safe as possible and focused on the state’s requirement to have lead in the fuel their planes use.
One pilot who lives in Santa Monica, John Rosenberg, encouraged Lieu to continue to investigate different strategies regarding aviation gasoline and how to make it less harmful to residents, but to make certain that any conclusions his committee reaches should be based on science and not emotion.
“We share the same concerns of everyone else in the community, so there is nothing short of an intense effort to find a way to be the least impactful as possible on the environment and on the community,” he said.
“When you’re dealing with policies that govern health, you have to get it right,” Rosenberg told The Argonaut after the hearing. “Because you can do a substantial amount of harm if that policy is based on anecdotal testimony and emotion.”
Lieu noted that because the FAA regulates aviation gasoline, federal intervention will be needed at some point.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Venice), who also represents portions of Santa Monica and Playa del Rey, wrote a letter last year to FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta.
“General aviation fuel now accounts for half of the lead emissions in the United States. It is a major concern for residents living near the Santa Monica Airport,” Waxman wrote. “The FAA says it has a plan for a new fuel to be available in a decade or so, but there are unleaded alternatives available now for the vast majority of small aircraft.
“The FAA needs to do more to promote their use. We need to get the lead out today.”
Lieu said there were some troublesome revelations that he took away from the hearing.
“One of the things that I learned is that there is no safe level of lead for children to have in their system,” the senator told The Argonaut the day after the hearing. “The more that we find out about lead, the more serious this becomes.”
Martin Rubin, director of the anti-airport pollution group Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, also testified before the committee.
The senator said testimony and data compiled from the hearings that he has held will be submitted to the FAA and to Waxman and Rep. Janice Hahn, whose district includes Mar Vista.