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Amid health concerns, community pushes for immediate switch to unleaded aviation fuel at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport

Advocates pushing for immediate switch to unleaded aviation fuel at airport
Advocates pushing for immediate switch to unleaded aviation fuel at airport 04:44

The Rock Creek neighborhood in Superior is nearly picture-perfect.

"I wanted to be in a place that was great for raising families," Matt Koschmann said.

"We like to run and bike, so that was a primary draw of the community," Laurie Chin-Sayers said.

It was place that, for many, was easy to call home.

"My wife and I decided we wanted to start a family, so we moved into this neighborhood," said Robert Boutelle, a scientist who also calls the area home. "Thought it was very family friendly."

But for many of the residents, there's a cloud above their neighborhood they can't escape. Airplanes have been coming in and out of the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport at an increasing rate.

Many of them have piston engines, largely used by flight schools, that run on leaded fuel.

"Because of this lead issue, my wife and I decided to put that on hold," Boutelle said about starting a family.

Rebecca Port is new to the neighborhood with a newborn in tow.

"As a new mom and a first-time mom, to live in this kind of fear it's- it's been like, I don't want to cry, it's been bad for my mental health. I just worry about my daughter all the time," she said while fighting back tears.

These four are just a few of those raising concerns about the fuel. Nine homes in the area have already gone through testing and all nine had lead particles inside.

"Our house tested positive as one of the highest," Koschmann said.

Lead was found in his home on the inside of the windowsills on the top level of their home. Still, there's no way to know where exactly it came from.

"That's a concern, but what can you do about it? Yell at the sky?" he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has set a goal of eliminating the use of lead in all aviation gas by 2030, but with the development of unleaded fuel options last year and some airports already supplying an alternative, there's a push for more immediate action.

The town of Superior's trustees, who represent the residents in Rock Creek, recently sent a letter to airport officials and commissioners in neighboring Jefferson County, where the airport sits, demanding they make the switch sooner rather than later.

Airport CEO Paul Anslow says they are planning a transition, but it can't happen overnight and isn't cheap.

"The infrastructure needs to be put in place prior to those fuels arriving, you need separate tanks for liability, at least for several years until we figure out if there's any unknown side effects," he said.

Anslow, who has a long history in aviation, says the wrong fuel ending up in the wrong plane isn't just a small mix-up.

"Think about it as if you were to put diesel into your car or gas into your diesel car," he said. "It destroys your engine. That is a bad thing to happen in a plane."

Anslow says they are applying for grants to help bring in the infrastructure, but he believes they're likely two to three years away, at which point, he believes 100% unleaded fuel will be available.

"The key is, we have to do it sustainable, and we have to do it safe and rushing into something and making a mistake is going to cost lives," he said.

We asked if that included those outside of the airport who are worried about the fuel impacting their health.

"Is that a factor? Community safety?" CBS News Colorado reporter Karen Morfitt asked.

"It is, but it's kind of an unfair comparison, right? There was no other option for 40 years or longer, that was the fuel we used. Now we are about to cross the starting line to switching over and they are like, 'no, you need to do it now,'" he said. "Well I'd love to but, again, my job as the airport director is to protect the aviation assets on this airport."

So, what are the risks? It's no secret lead is toxic but what about lead from aviation gas?

A years-long study looking at a similar airport in California found children who lived near the airport had extremely high lead levels in their blood.

Similar data looking at areas around Colorado airports doesn't exist yet.

Kristy Richardson is a toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

"We're trying to determine whether there is a measurable relationship between the proximity to an airport and the increased blood-lead levels for individuals in Colorado," she said.

While they wait for results, she has a message to families.

"We understand that it's scary to look at this airport in your house and wonder if that leaded aviation fuel is having an impact on your child and we know that children are most at risk. The best thing you can do is have your child tested for lead. It's one blood draw," Richardson said.

She added that determining if there is a correlation has been difficult because Colorado has a low testing rate when it comes to lead. They are expecting to have results on their study by the end of the year, but cautions if there are high lead results, each case will need to be closely examined to eliminate other potential sources of lead.

Community members would like to see local officials offer free testing kits to residents, along with an educational campaign. We asked Superior Trustees if that is being considered and have not heard back. 

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