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10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure

(Report released by The Pew Charitable Trusts on 8/30/17)

September 7, 2017

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released a collaborative report entitled 10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure. According to the study, "The effort was guided by a diverse group of advisers and experts from fields including environmental and public health, child development, economics, housing, health care, environmental, and social justice, and drinking water engineering. In addition, input from stakeholders, including families whose children have suffered the toxic effects of lead, provided valuable insights." The report finds that children of color and those who live in low-income communities are at a disproportionate risk of lead exposure. (Page 1)

A summary of the report along with an option for downloading the entire document is available at the Pew Charitable Trusts website: 10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure.

The report identifies the primary sources of lead exposure and explores the benefits of removing lead from drinking water in homes, schools and childcare facilities. It provides information and recommendations for removing lead paint from older homes and buildings. In addition, it promotes lead-safe renovation, repair and painting practices and emphasizes the importance of addressing soil contamination. Reducing lead in food and other consumer products is also discussed as is reducing airborne lead emissions caused by leaded aviation fuel, lead smelting and battery recycling facilities.

Aviation Lead

Below are some excerpts from the report that directly address aviation lead emissions.

"Eliminating lead from airplane fuel would protect more than 226,000 children born in 2018 who live near airports, generate $262 million in future benefits, and remove roughly 450 tons of lead from the environment every year." (Page 2)

"Leaded fuel used by piston engine aircraft is the nation's largest source of lead emissions into the air, with approximately 167,000 aircraft emitting about 450 tons a year. These planes constitute 71 percent of the U.S. air fleet..." (Page 63).

"In 2010, the EPA estimated that about half of lead emissions from aircraft remains in the vicinity of the airport, and that approximately 16 million people live near the roughly 20,000 U.S. airports that serve aircraft running on leaded fuel and 3 million children attend school near these airports. Most of these are small, general aviation facilities serving civilian, noncommercial flights, such as private or corporate planes, flying schools, and sightseeing tours. In one study, children who lived within 0.6 miles of an airport were found to have blood lead levels that are 5.7 percent higher than those of children residing more than 2.5 miles from airports." (Page 63).

"...experts suggested that removing lead from the fuel would decrease pilots' and aircraft fuelers' contact with lead, potentially reducing take-home exposure." (Page 64)

"In 2012, the FAA estimated that phasing out leaded fuel would take 11 years. According to a recent federal task force report, the FAA is working to identify unleaded alternative fuels for most piston engine aircraft by 2018, and under section 231 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA is evaluating whether lead emissions from aviation fuel 'cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.' Based on the results of its investigation, the EPA could help to expedite the elimination of lead in aviation fuel by using its authority under the act to issue an 'endangerment finding,' indicating that leaded aircraft fuel emissions are polluting and harmful to public health. Such a ruling would trigger the FAA to issue standards."

"Given the protracted timelines for federal action, however, states may wish to take steps to address the problem by, for example, requiring all general aviation airports to provide unleaded gas or establishing fees or taxes on airports serving piston engine aircraft to support the cleanup of the soil in parks and near homes, schools, and child care facilities." (Page 65)

To reduce airborne lead emissions the report recommends the following.

  • "The EPA should implement the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee's recommendation to reduce the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for lead to 0.02 µg/m3 and prioritize regulation of concentrations around lead smelting and battery recycling facilities."
  • "The FAA should eliminate lead from aviation gas and identify alternative formulas that can minimize the cost to airport and plane operators, and the EPA should issue an endangerment finding that lead emissions from aircraft threaten public health and promulgate emissions limits, which would then require the FAA to adopt regulations to ensure compliance with those standards."
  • "State and local governments should impose fees on airports serving piston engine aircraft that rely on leaded gas and use the revenue to finance the cleanup of soil in surrounding residential neighborhoods, parks, and school districts." (Page 82)

Health Impacts of Lead Exposure

The report includes the following statements on the health impacts of lead.

"Lead's adverse health impacts have been recognized since at least the second century B.C. Since then, thousands of studies have concluded that lead has wide-ranging effects on the health of young children and significant costs to taxpayers. Even at very low levels, lead exposure affects the brain's ability to control impulses and process information. Lead-poisoned children are more likely to struggle in school, drop out, get into trouble with the law, underperform in the workplace, and earn less throughout their lives, independent of other social and economic factors. The financial consequences of these outcomes include billions of dollars in public spending on special education, juvenile justice and other social services." (Page 1)

"Prevention is the most critical and first approach to addressing childhood lead exposure, but those efforts have come too late for many children. Children exposed to lead may demonstrate delays in development of language skills, problems focusing, poor impulse control, and disruptive behavior. They are more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, to struggle to pass achievement tests, and to have lower IQs and worse academic achievement than other children. Recent research has found that among young adults exposed to lead as children, the areas of the brain important for language can reorganize to facilitate language; however this reorganization does not necessarily compensate for the effects of lead on language function. Research suggests that exposure to lead has particularly detrimental effects on children's executive functioning, such as working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These skills help children retain and manipulate information over short periods; sustain or shift attention in response to different demands; set priorities; and resist impulsive actions, responses, or judgments. If children do not receive appropriate early interventions, lead-related deficits can ripple through their lives. For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is common among lead poisoned children, is a strong predictor of social isolation, which in turn can decrease school success and increase risky behaviors. All of these problems become risk factors for delinquency, criminal behavior, substance use, and pregnancy in adolescence and young adulthood." (Page 69)

Preventing Childhood Lead Poisoning

Since Oregon Aviation Watch focuses on aviation related issues, this update primarily highlights the leaded aviation fuel issue. However, the report considers a broad range of sources of lead exposure and poisoning that are well worth further review. The report concludes by stating that "childhood lead poisoning is preventable" and points out the significant cost savings that can be realized by protecting children from coming into contact with this toxin.

"Eliminating lead hazards from the places where children live, learn, and play will pay dividends in terms of social and educational outcomes, and this analysis found that it also could yield $84 billion in long-term benefits per birth cohort. The federal government would reap about $19 billion, and states would gain approximately $10 billion for children born in 2018 alone. In the absence of lead, hundreds of thousands of children would be more likely to realize their full potential thanks to higher GPAs, a better chance of earning high school diplomas and graduating from college, and a reduced likelihood of becoming teen parents or being convicted of crimes."

Government agencies bear responsibility for protecting the health and well-being of residents from toxic pollutants and polluters. Towards this end policy makers on the local, state and federal levels should take immediate steps to eliminate lead exposure at its source by implementing the many excellent recommendations included in the study.

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