LONG BEACH, Calif. — As a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Lori Shepler often faced dangerous situations to get a shot.
Now in her retirement, she’s facing a new type of danger, as she checks an app showing how many small planes are flying nearby. Some cruise directly over Carver Elementary School, the school her five-year-old twins attend, just blocks from Long Beach Airport.
“They are probably flying around 300 feet or so, and yeah, their exhaust has lead coming out of it and this lead dust falls down onto the ground,” she said.
Leaded gasoline is still used by small piston-powered planes, which make up 70% of all lead emissions in the nation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While there aren’t any regulations on dangerous levels of emissions from airports, Shepler was shocked to learn Long Beach Airport ranks second in the U.S. for lead pollution, according to data from the EPA.
She was even more surprised a recent study showed children who live near an airport in Northern California, in Santa Clara County, had high blood lead levels, which can lead to serious health problems including developmental delays.
“My heart dropped. I was like, wait a minute, if this airport is having these issues with children near the airport and Long Beach is second with twice as many lead emissions, I was like, had to get all hands-on deck,” she said.
She’s not the only one raising awareness about airport lead emissions. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth has known about it for 16 years, according to Program Director Marcie Keever, who says small planes are crucial for transporting goods to rural areas and fighting fires.
“They shouldn’t have been able to use leaded fuel at all,” Keever said. “We should have been able to get the lead out sooner than this. We have the ability.”
For years, Friends of the Earth took legal action and petitioned the EPA to take action but it wasn’t until recently that the agency announced a major step called an “endangerment finding,” which proposes that lead in aviation fuel is a danger to public health, especially for young kids who live near airports.
”When it comes to our children the science is clear, exposure to lead can cause irreversible and lifelong health effects. Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions to air in the country,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.
If the EPA’s endangerment finding is finalized in 2023, the agency would move toward proposing new emission standards for lead in planes. Also, in February of this year, the FAA announced it’s planning to eliminate leaded gas in planes by 2030.
“This is a process to get the lead out of this fuel, from the federal level on down, so if an airport can bring this unleaded fuel and get people to start adopting it, we’re on our way to try to reduce, if not get rid of the lead emissions, in that particular airport,” she said.
On Oct. 18, Long Beach Vice Mayor Rex Richardson introduced a motion for the city manager to work with the airport and other stakeholders to determine how to reduce lead pollution and switch to unleaded fuel, asking for a report in 60 days, which the council approved.
“The City Council has a responsibility to look at the issue with respect to leaded fuels, see what investments that we need to make and also engage in the national and regional discussion about rule-making to make sure that the policies that are put forth both federally and locally prioritize the public health of people who live in our communities,” Richardson said.
Shepler says she hopes unleaded gas will be banned at airports to cut off the source of lead emissions completely. She also plans to get her children tested for lead, especially because her daughter is in remission from cancer and faces respiratory issues.
“I have this situation that their health could be affected for the rest of their lives and I am not going to let it go,” she said.