A Lungful of Flying Lead

Poison passed
from paints and pans
to streets
and homes
and lives.
A build-up of bile
broken only by promises
of pure, mandated air.
Yet shadows linger,
hidden from sight
in flying sores that
Mists of lead
caught on artificial eddies
that march downwind
on wings too large
to break,
drip-fed into lungs
whose mouths
can’t form the words
they need
for help.

Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California (Image Credit: Cleipelt21, via Wikimedia Commons).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that children near airports may be exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

In the past 40 years, there has been a significant decrease in the blood lead levels of children in the United States. This decrease is closely linked to policies that have removed lead from various sources such as paint, plumbing, food cans, and gasoline. One of the most effective interventions was the removal of tetraethyl lead (TEL) from automotive gasoline under the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its subsequent amendment in 1990. However, while TEL is no longer used in automotive gasoline, it is still present in aviation gasoline, which is used by around 170,000 piston-engine aircraft across the country. In fact, despite decades of efforts to eliminate lead pollution, the use of lead-formulated aviation gasoline is responsible for roughly half to two-thirds of lead emissions in the United States.

In this new study, researchers analysed the blood lead levels of children under six living near Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California, for a period of 10 years. The study found that the probability of high blood lead levels (over 4.5 micrograms per decilitre) increased as the distance to the airport decreased. Children living east of the airport, who were downwind, had higher blood lead levels. The study also found that the blood lead levels of children near the airport were highly correlated with the amount of piston-engine aircraft traffic and leaded aviation gasoline sold at the airport. The data collected in this study strongly supports the urgent need to reduce aviation lead emissions in order to protect the well-being and opportunities of vulnerable children.

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