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Our 'Flint, Michigan': Scientists, residents sound alarm on leaded fuel used at Jefferson County airport

It’s been nearly 50 years since the U.S. began aggressively phasing out the sale of leaded gas for cars, but the same can't be said for aircraft
Posted: 8:45 PM, Sep 11, 2023
Updated: 2023-11-08 11:20:09-05
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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — It’s been nearly five decades since the United States began aggressively phasing out the sale of leaded gas for cars, as we became aware of the catastrophic health effects the compound can have, particularly for children. Leaded paint, likewise, has been unavailable for purchase nationwide since 1978.

Yet every year, hundreds of tons of lead are emitted above our heads.

Many smaller planes, often used by training pilots, still use leaded fuel, and that’s caused growing concerns among residents near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (which has seen a huge growth in pilot training in recent years). Many of them have been speaking out to each other, to elected leaders, and now to Denver7 about their fears and frustration at what they see as an inexcusably slow response to the issue.

Our “Flint, Michigan”: Dr. Boutelle’s warning

Dr. Robert Boutelle in Superior is one of those speaking out. By his own account, he is allergic to attention and would much rather be diving into the science behind the scenes than speaking about his findings publicly.

“I drew the short straw in this, unfortunately,” he laughed as we sat down for an interview at his kitchen table.

Despite his normal aversion, Dr. Boutelle has become one of the loudest voices warning about lead in the northwest Denver metro area. He has a Ph.D. in material chemistry from UCLA, and specializes in nanomaterials (like lead) and how they imbed inside of cells.

Given this background, he has a deep understanding of the way lead is picked up in the body and felt a duty to sound the alarm. He and two colleagues tested windowsills at nine houses, spread across different neighborhoods near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, and were alarmed by what they found.

“They were astonishingly high, a part per thousand” Dr. Boutelle said. “According to the EPA, if that [amount] was in the soil, this would be a superfund site” for contamination mitigation.

“So, we are being exposed to a high level of lead in the area,” he continued. “What the CDC says, and the EPA says, is that there’s no safe levels of lead exposure for children.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states exposure to lead can have serious health impacts, especially in kids, and can include brain damage, slowed growth and development, and problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Those concerns drove Flint, Mich., into national headlines nearly a decade ago, when its drinking water was contaminated with lead. Dr. Boutelle worries this could be our “Flint, Michigan moment.”

“This does have health effects for children, which are permanent,” he said. “And it’s very important that we try to get rid of lead as much as possible.”

A Westminster's woman's “terrifying” discovery

Ever since Dr. Boutelle and his colleagues discovered the high lead levels in nearby neighborhoods, he has been telling anyone who will listen. In doing so, he’s inspired several people to test for lead exposure themselves.

Charlene Willey is one of them.

“This is a report that I got very recently from my doctor,” Willey said, holding up a document laying on her kitchen table. “It shows that I have a blood-lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which by CDC standards is a level of concern.”

Willey has lived in her home in Westminster for nearly 30 years, less than a mile from the boundary of the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. For years, her proximity to RMMA didn’t bother her — and delighted her late husband, she said, who was an aviation fanatic — but she began to grow frustrated and then concerned when traffic at the airport took off around the beginning of the pandemic. That concern led to hours upon hours of research into local airports, and the discovery that leaded fuel was being used by many of the planes flying over her home.

“It was terrifying. It was terrifying,” Willey said of her blood-lead level test. “It’s really hard to bear. It’s really hard to have hope—hope not just for myself, but for the kids that are growing up in my own neighborhood right here.”

Willey is now pushing on elected leaders at every level — from city council, to Congress — to end the use of leaded aviation fuel.

The FAA Reauthorization Bill

A ban the fuel wouldn’t be a completely unprecedented move. The same fears being raised near RMMA have been raised across the country. Last year, Santa Clara County in California commissioned a study, and found high levels of lead in thousands of children near one of its airports. The county responded by banning the sale of leaded aviation fuel.

At the same time, Congress appears to be on a different page. It has set an overall goal to eliminate leaded aviation fuel by 2030; however, the FAA Reauthorization bill passed by the House of Representatives in July would prevent airports from phasing out the fuels on their own in the meantime, if they offered it as of 2018. This could effectively undo Santa Clara County’s decision, and prevent other airports — like RMMA — from following suit.

The bill is now being debated in the Senate, and residents like Charlene Willey are trying to put pressure on our senators to change that part of the bill. Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper sits on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in the Senate, which is considering the bill.

“We actually are trying very hard”: RMMA’s director responds

Just feet off the tarmac at RMMA, we met its director, Paul Anslow. Despite the use of leaded fuel by planes at the airport, he said he agrees with the voices calling for an end to its use.

“It may not seem like it, but we actually are trying very hard to transition from lead,” Anslow said, but added that the transition will take two to three years for the necessary money and infrastructure to do so.

“You have to have the tanks, the fuel trucks, the infrastructure to support that,” he said. “And then the final one really is the refinement and distribution. There’s 19,000 airports in America. We’re all transitioning away from that lead.”

Given the dire warnings doctors and scientists are issuing regarding lead exposure, we asked Anslow if more pressure should then be placed on the FAA and Congress to make the necessary resources available to speed up the transition away from leaded fuel.

“I will say, the FAA does a great job,” he responded. “And just like everybody who has limited budgets, they have to support all those aircraft. But on the same note, I would say absolutely… We’re actually one of the more successful airports in the country, but coming up with a $2 or $3 million infrastructure is difficult. There’s a lot of small airports that are never going to have that money. So I think absolutely.”

Dr. Boutelle’s Big Decision

Many, like Charlene Willey and Dr. Robert Boutelle, feel we’re already on borrowed time and don’t have any left to waste.

Dr. Boutelle hopes families in the area will head his warning to address lead in their homes. The CDC recommends concerned parents contact their health provider to have their children’s blood lead levels tested. It also advises people to regularly wash their hands, and wet-mop floors, surfaces, and windowsills to eliminate as much dust as possible.

For his own part, Dr. Boutelle made a big life decision after his lead findings.

“I was extremely excited to come here and start a family with my wife,” he said. “However, after learning about what’s happening, I can’t in good conscience bring my child into the world, knowing that they would be put at risk … We put those plans on hold until something actually happens.”

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