A piston engine aircraft at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, which is near Westminster in Jefferson County. (Luke Zarzecki/Westminster Window)

By Luke Zarzecki, The Westminster Window

A group of doctors sent Jefferson County commissioners a letter and a petition signed by 35 health care professionals asking the elected officials to act on leaded fuel at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. 

The call to action comes as RMMA ranks 63rd on the top 100 lead-emitting airports in the country. The airport dropped 580 pounds of lead in 2017. 

The signees, mostly doctors and nurses, have four demands included: to not increase operations at the airport until a study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is done, increase testing of blood lead levels in children under the age of 6, offer unleaded fuels to the aviation community and to adopt a “comprehensive and forward-thinking strategy which focuses on both the needs of aviation users and the health of the surrounding communities.”

“This is a no-brainer. Lead is a toxin and it affects developing brains in such a detrimental manner and there’s no undoing the damage that’s been done by lead,” said Pamela Gewinner, a neonatologist who spearheaded the petition signing. 

A 2021 study of the Reid-Hillview Airport in California found elevated blood lead levels in children living within 1.5 miles of the airport, which was ranked 34th out of 100 lead-emitting airports. 

Dr. Sammy Zahran of Colorado State University helped complete the study and said they found that the levels of lead in children increased significantly the closer they were to the Reid-Hillview Airport and that children living downwind of the airport were even more likely to have significantly higher levels of lead in their blood. 

Zahran also found the levels of lead in the test subjects’ blood correlated to piston-engine aircraft traffic as well as monthly quantities of aviation gasoline sold at the airport.

Solutions here and elsewhere

Paul Anslow, the director of the airport, said he manages more than 350 leases for the hangars pilots can rent. He can’t discriminate against who he rents to.

Anslow said a solution may be coming in the future, once electric planes hit the market. Two flight schools at the airport — which almost solely use leaded fuel now — have each pre-ordered 20 electric planes.

But one solution, doing away with leaded fuel altogether, might not be so bad, Gewinner said, referencing a federal hearing on the topic. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing July 28 regarding leaded aviation fuel and highlighted Santa Clara County’s response to the Reid-Hillview airport. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, testifying at the hearing, said the county stopped selling leaded fuel on Jan. 1 and stopped accepting airport improvement grants from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Since transitioning away from leaded gas, the airport’s operations have stayed the same. The gas sales have also stayed nearly the same.

“In the six months since the transition, fuel vendors at Reid-Hillview have sold approximately 90% as much unleaded Avgas as they sold leaded Avgas in the first six months of 2021,” she said at the hearing. 

Anslow said if Jefferson County banned the sale of leaded fuel, that would result in a loss of 40% of the airport’s business. 

According to Julie Story, a spokesperson for Jefferson County, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport provides more than 3,000 jobs totaling $190 million in annual pay, more than $700 million in annual business revenues to the region and approximately $27 billion in indirect annual economic value, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s 2020 Aeronautics Economic Impact Study.

Jefferson County Commissioners Andy Kerr and Lesley Dahlkemper did not respond for comment. 

Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport from Westminster. (Simot Foot, via CC images)

Potential study

As to a study from CDPHE, Jim Rada, Director of Environmental Health Services at Jefferson County Public Health, said the department can’t do much. 

“That is not something that the health department does. We don’t have resources or expertise or authority for that matter to do any kind of an environmental assessment around the airport,” he said. 

He said that if community members began testing their children’s blood lead levels and people showed elevated levels, then the state health department’s environmental epidemiology group would become involved.

That’s what led to Gewinner asking why doctors aren’t screening children for lead.

Kristy Richardson, state toxicologist, said all children on Medicaid are required to be tested for lead at 12 and 24 months. In addition to requirements, they consider risk factors as well. Those risk factors include a series of questions asking if they live in a house built before 1978, if they are a recent immigrant or if other people in their family have had lead poisoning.

She also said CDPHE has a surveillance system that alerts them if there are elevated blood lead levels in an area.

“To date, we don’t have any evidence that says (airports are) an important source here in Colorado,” Richardson said. 

Though, not everyone is tested.

“We’re only testing those children where their doctors or medical providers screen them and say ‘you’re at risk and you should get tested,’ so it makes it challenging to look at our data and understand whether there’s any relationship to living by an airport,” she said. 

If spatial patterns started to exist, CDPHE would work with local public health partners to understand the exposure and provide help. 

Residents can go to CDPHE’s ​​​​​​​webpage and take a six-question quiz to see if they are recommended to be tested. Richardson said the department encourages residents to take the test to understand if their child is at risk. 

As well, they should talk with their health care provider about their concerns. 

“It is relatively easy to get your blood tested. Many medical providers offer a screening test which is just a finger prick,” she said. 

Read more from The Westminister Window.

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