Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to more accurately reflect the number and nature of consultant reports released in 2022.
The Middleton Municipal Airport, also known as the Morey Airfield, sits next to the Middleton Firefighters Memorial Park, within two miles of four schools and three other public parks and recreational areas.
The airport, which sits in the town of Middleton but is operated by the city of Middleton, is mostly used for smaller aircraft than those at the Dane County Airport and as a flight school. But even those small aircraft use leaded fuel to fly, leading at least one town official to worry about potential lead poisoning from those planes.
While lead-laden fuel has been banned for cars and other ground vehicles since the 1980s, it is still allowed for aircraft, mostly because the options for non-leaded aircraft fuel is limited. Leaded aviation fuel is the largest remaining aggregate source of air lead emissions in the United States, according to a 2021 study by the federal EPA.
Morgan Finke with Public Health Madison Dane County says that any exposure to lead can have consequences for young children.
“It can cause a wide-range of impacts on the body, including disabilities, and behavior problems,” Finke says. “Even low levels of lead in the blood can carry with it a myriad of issues, including hearing problems, or anemia.”
The county health department released a new report today on the prevalence of lead poisoning surrounding Morey Airfield, and Finke says the results look promising.
“We didn’t find any evidence that the Madison Municipal Airport has contributed to elevated blood lead levels in the surrounding community,” Finke says. “I should also mention that the findings in this study are limited by the data available to us.”
The report draws on already-existing data of blood-lead levels in children in Dane County, in the town of Middleton, and living within one kilometer of Morey Field.
It finds that, between 2010 and 2020, only one child that lived close to the airport was found to have lead poisoning, and only three children living near the airport had elevated blood-lead levels. Comparatively, nine children in all of Middleton got lead poisoning during that same time frame, and over 600 children got lead poisoning in all of Dane County.
The report did not conclusively say that these cases of lead poisoning were from airborne lead emissions, and could have stemmed from a variety of sources, like lead paint chips and lead-soldered water pipes.
But this data could be flawed. The report only draws from existing data provided by the state Health Department, which only requires blood-lead testing under specific circumstances.
That means that, unless a child is known to live in a house built before 1950 or is enrolled in Medicaid, they probably have never had their blood-lead levels tested.
Today’s report from the county is at odds with several commissioned by the Town of Middleton. The latest report, released in September 2022, tested air samples from three locations around the town of Middleton, finding that there are more ground-level lead emissions from the airport, closer to the airport.
That backs up an earlier modeling study, released in March, where consultants found that Morey Field is responsible for over 30% of all airborne lead emissions in Dane County, and generates about 217 pounds of lead pollution each year.
Those studies were commissioned in 2019 at the urging of Cynthia Richson, the chairperson of the town of Middleton, who has made airborne lead pollution from Morey Field one of her top issues.
Both studies were conducted by Trinity consultants, a group that often helps the EPA with their own airborne lead studies.
Richson says that the new report from the county is flawed. She says not only did the study not have a large enough sample size of blood-lead testing, but it also barely acknowledged what they already knew, and were looking for the wrong data.
“I think they’re missing the point,” Richson says. “The way the planes fly at the Middleton Municipal Airport, is at very low altitude repetitively. The topography to the west, where 70% or more of these planes take off to, are frequently going over our heads at 400, 500, 600 feet, in other words, very low altitudes. That’s, as I understand, referred to as below the mixing height, which means that, essentially, barring unusual weather conditions, as the plane is flying those very small lead particles are dropping along the flight path.”
Richson says that, on top of more blood-lead level testing, the county should create a full report of lead emissions out of the airport.
Finke says that the county health department recognizes that there is still more work to be done, and that this report is only the first step in a larger process.
“We are very aware of the seriousness of this issue,” Finke says. “We of course support all of the ongoing work to address this issue both locally and federally as a larger big picture. We also appreciate that those residents have come forward to share their concerns. This report by no means indicates that we are done caring about lead exposure, or we are done caring about this issue.”
Today’s public health department meeting is still ongoing as of broadcast. The board could decide to accept the report, or to ask for additional information.
Meanwhile, Richson says this is still a top issue. She’ll be speaking at a national conference on airborne lead pollution at Boston College next week, bringing the small-town issue to a national stage.
Photo courtesy: Drew Beamer / UNSPLASH