A scientific study released today shows disturbing links between pollution from piston-engine airplanes at Reid-Hillview Airport and high levels of lead in the blood of children living near the airport.
Santa Clara County supervisors had voted in 2020 to hire renowned epidemiologist Sammy Zahran to conduct the study, as community complaints about possible lead contamination grew. Zahran, a professor of demography and epidemiology at Colorado State University, was one of the key scientists investigating lead contamination of drinking water supplies in Flint, Mich.
His findings in the 131-page report released today documenting contamination from lead-based aircraft gasoline in neighborhoods surrounding the San Jose general aviation airport are likely to fuel demands to accelerate the closure of the airport, now slated for closing in 2032.
The study concluded that during periods of high piston-engine aircraft traffic, children living close to Reid-Hillview experienced an increase in blood lead levels on a par with the children of Flint, Michigan during the Flint Water Crisis.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood because it damages children’s developing brains, among many other issues,” the report warned..
Zahran’s study examined 17,000 blood samples that were collected from 2011-2020 from children under 18 years of age living near the airport. There are 21 schools and childcare centers surrounding Reid-Hillview Airport.
The results of the study were revealed at a press conference at the East San Jose airport by County Commissioner Cindy Chavez and Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools.
Chavez called for renewed efforts to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to allow closure of the airport before the end of the last remaining federal airport grant in 10 years.
The county Board of Supervisors is hosting virtual public meetings Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 to review the results of Zahran’s study with residents of the affected neighborhoods, and will then discuss the report at a Board of Supervisors meeting at 6pm Aug. 17.
An East San José virtual community meeting will be held at 6pm, Wednesday, Aug. 11, with Chavez.
- Join this webinar (on Zoom): https://sccgov-org.zoom.us/j/93339943986
- Residents also may call into the meeting by smartphone at: (669) 219-2599, Webinar ID 93339943986# (participant ID not required)
- The meeting will be translated simultaneously in Spanish and Vietnamese.
A similar virtual meeting will be held for South County residents the next day, 6pm, Aug. 12,with Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who leads opposition to the airport closure
- Join this webinar (on Zoom): https://sccgov-org.zoom.us/j/95709413535
- Residents also may also call into the meeting by smartphone at: (669) 900-6833, Webinar ID 95709413535# (participant ID not required).
- The meeting will be translated simultaneously in Spanish and Vietnames
The Board of Supervisors last fall approved plans to prepare for the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport when federal funds expire in 2031.
This spurred a wide-ranging debate about what’s next for the 180 acres of valuable real estate, including affordable housing, social services, educational resources and open space.
The FAA has told the county that the nearly 80-year-old airfield is obligated to operate until 2031 because of a 2011 Federal Aviation Administration grant. Plans would gradually shift all of the county’s general aviation traffic south to San Martin Airport just south of Morgan Hill. County supervisors voted in 2018 to stop taking any more FAA grants the East San Jose airport, which began a repurposing debate.
Chavez has been pressing for the repurposing of the Reid-Hillview Airport as “a long overdue opportunity for residents in East San Jose to voice their aspirations on what the needs are for the 180 acres moving forward, including everything from affordable housing to recreation to schools," she said last year.
More than a dozen neighborhood meetings were held in 2020 to discuss possible plans for the airport site. Today’s release of the Zahran study adds a special sense of urgency to that effort, but also raises the spectre of possible lead contamination in soils and structures at and around the site.
The issue of lead contamination around the airport is not new.
East San Jose City Council members Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza and Sylvia Arenas last year warned that the airport has had numerous negative impacts on surrounding communities.
They pointed to recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that identified Reid-Hillview as the 25th-highest lead-emitting airport in the country with lead emissions from piston aircraft exceeding safety thresholds set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
“The families in this community have, for generations, been put at risk and suffered from the pollution generated by Reid-Hillview," Arenas said last fall. “Lead is one of the most potent neurotoxins that affect children and today we can say without any question Hillview is putting dangerous levels of lead into the air and children."
San Jose Inside reported last fall that the ZIP code of the airport and surrounding neighborhoods is one of the top 200 ZIP codes in the state for lead poisoning among children, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“All these factors have impacted hypertension, obesity, diabetes and it has gotten worse over time,” Gardner Health Services CEO Reymundo Espinoza said last year. “We have seen higher disparities in the East Side and it’s very important to begin addressing the social determinants of health like housing ... and that begins with repurposing the airport.”
Alum Rock Union School District board member Andres Quintero said repurposing the airport, which grew in 1965 over the objections of community and school officials, would “right a historical wrong.”
The Alum Rock district last year strongly supported closing the airport not only because of the lead-related health impacts, but also because of the noise pollution and community fears of plane accidents.
During the SCU Lightning Complex fires that burned in the county’s western foothills nearly a year ago, Cal Fire used the East San Jose airport as a central hub where agencies made attack plans and helicopters refueled. But at today’s press conference, Captain Adam Cosner of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, said helicopters don’t require a very big takeoff site.
Wasserman, who represents the South County’s airport at San Martin, is the lone dissenting voice on the closure plan. He is concerned that closing Reid-Hillview would clog San Jose Mineta International Airport and cause too much air traffic over still-rural San Martin.
Currently, the Reid-Hillview Airport services private aircraft and San Jose State University aviation students. It is also used by two emergency response teams: Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), who are not first responders and provide support as part of a larger regional network.
Santa Clara County firefighters, San Jose police and other first responders don’t rely on the airport for emergency services and Cal Fire uses it around one to two times a year for wildfire response, county officials said.