Reid-Hillview Airport linked to high lead levels in children: study

Lead levels at the Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose are dangerously high for children in the surrounding area, according to a report issued by the county.   

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors commissioned the lead study in 2020 using 17,000 blood samples collected between 2011 and 2020 from children living near the airport.   

County officials announced the results of the study at a news conference at the airport Tuesday, which included Supervisor Cindy Chavez, whose district contains the airport, Mary Ann Dewan, county superintendent of schools, and Captain Adam Cosner of the Santa Clara County Fire Department.   

"What this very thorough study proves is that we literally have a crisis on our hands," Chavez said. "This is a public health issue, it's an environmental justice issue and it's an equity issue because the people who live around Reid-Hillview are among those who are least affluent in our community."   

The study found elevated lead levels in the children's blood during periods of high traffic at the airport, on par with the lead levels in children during the Flint, Michigan water crisis.   

Unlike cars, where leaded fuel is banned by federal law, some airplane fuel still contains lead. Decades of research suggest that it contributes to cancer.   

According to the county, there are 21 schools and childcare centers surrounding the airport.   

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"It's really clear from what you've heard today and we've known for a very long time: lead is dangerous for children," Dewan said. "Many people believe lead exposure is rare. It is not. Many people believe lead exposure can be mitigated. It can't. Research demonstrates the effects on children's educational attainment, cognitive function and behavior and emotional regulation."   

The study comes amid a fight over the future of the 84-year-old East San Jose airport, as a growing number of leaders demand its closure.   

Supervisors voted in November to begin the planning process for closing the airport and repurposing the land. They also voted to explore the possibility of consolidating Reid-Hillview's aviation with the San Martin Airport, about 23 miles southeast of Reid-Hillview just outside of Gilroy.   

Advocates for decades have called for the airport's closure, saying it poses safety and noise concerns and that the land could be better used for much-needed affordable housing. Opponents, however, say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes and emergency operations.   

Dr. Stephen Harris, a pediatrician with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said Tuesday studies show there is no safe level of lead in the blood of children and adults.   

"It's also dangerous for pregnant women, and can be transmitted through the placenta to the developing child," Harris said.   

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Advocates representing the Latino-heavy neighborhoods around the airport, including the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley and the Close Reid-Hillview Airport Now! Coalition, claim the airport is an example of environmental injustice due to its proximity to low-income neighborhoods. The groups will hold a rally Saturday near the airport to urge for its closure.   

If Santa Clara County supervisors go through with the consolidation plan, San Martin residents fear they could be exposed to elevated lead levels from the redirected traffic. Opponents also worry more air traffic to the village of approximately 7,000 people will tax the resources of the smaller San Martin Airport.   

"The whole move is just a bad idea," Stephen McHenry, president of the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance, told San Jose Spotlight.   

The group is pushing Chavez to keep Reid-Hillview open for disaster relief, such as fighting wildfires and rescue efforts for natural disasters, such as earthquakes.   

Cosner, a captain in the Santa Clara County Fire Department and president of IAFF Local 165, said the airport was used for helicopter refueling for last year's SCU Lightning Complex fire. But that was the only time it was used for fighting wildfires in 37 years.   

"The runways at Reid-Hillview are not long enough to accommodate the Cal Fire fixed-wing aircraft which we use in the hills here, and it wouldn't make much sense to do it here because of the fact that Hollister is where they have their base for operations," he said.   

A group of San Jose State University students surveyed residents in the vicinity of Reid-Hillview in June. They found a majority of the 40 respondents are in favor of closing the airport. Meanwhile, a District 5 United survey found two-thirds of 1,300 people surveyed are in favor of keeping the airport open.   

The county will hold two community meetings to solicit input about the study: one on Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. primarily for East San Jose residents and another on Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. for South County residents.