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High blood pressure, diabetes, dementia: How plane pollution could threaten the health of 52m Europe

British Airways planes sit parked at Heathrow Airport in London.
British Airways planes sit parked at Heathrow Airport in London. Copyright AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File
Copyright AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File
By Rosie Frost
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Jet engines emit more ultrafine particle pollution than any other kind of engine.

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Thousands of cases of high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia across Europe could be linked to tiny particles emitted by planes, according to a new study commissioned by campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E).

More than 10 per cent of Europe’s total population - 52 million people - live within a 20km radius of the 32 busiest airports in the continent. This means they are particularly exposed to these ultrafine particles (UFPs) emitted by the jet engines of planes that take off and land there.

Some studies suggest UFPs may be linked to an increased risk of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, pregnancy issues and neurological conditions.

The study extrapolates from reported cases of these illnesses around Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to give the first-ever estimates of the health effects of UFPs in Europe.

It found that exposure to these tiny air pollution particles may be associated with up to 280,000 cases of high blood pressure, 330,000 cases of diabetes, and 18,000 cases of dementia in Europe.

Research on ultrafine air pollution is ‘scarce’

The impact of UFPs is an aspect of air pollution that is little studied.

Current research often focuses on the health effects of PM2.5 - particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. Ultrafine particles are those with a diameter of less than 0.1 micrometres - 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

They are much smaller and their ability to get deeper into the human body could make them “very dangerous” according to Carlos López de la Osa, T&E’s aviation technical manager.

These tiny particles have already been found in the blood, brain and placenta. But there isn’t much definitive data on how they actually affect our health.

“Research in this area is scarce and evidence for these effects is often not conclusive,” says Daan van Seters at consultancy CE Delft in the Netherlands which carried out the research for T&E.

Are there regulations for how much ultrafine pollution can be in the air?

There is no regulation on safe levels of UFPs in the air, T&E says, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) identifying it as a pollutant of emerging concern over 15 years ago.

Jet engines emit more ultrafine particles than any other kind of engine as part of their non-CO2 emissions. This means people living or working near airports are most likely to be exposed. In Paris, for example, that is a total of 8 million people affected by the two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly.

Living within a 5km radius of an airport could mean breathing in air that contains, on average, anything from 3,000 to 10,000 ultrafine particles per cubic centimetre emitted by aircraft. That’s roughly the same as people living in the middle of busy city centres.

Planes are parked on the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle airport, in Roissy, near Paris.
Planes are parked on the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle airport, in Roissy, near Paris.AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File

The areas with the lowest income in many cities across Europe are often close to airports too.

“This hidden health crisis has been ignored by politicians, who have prioritised the growth of the aviation sector and business travel over the health of its own people, often the poorest,” says López de la Osa.

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Can jet fuel be ‘cleaned up’ to prevent UFP pollution?

There are solutions, however. Using ‘better quality’ fuel can cut UFPs by 70 per cent, according to the study. The amount of these tiny particles emitted is highly dependent on the composition of the fuel - the cleaner it is the less air pollution is produced.

Fuels can be cleaned through a process called hydrotreatment that has been used for decades to remove sulphur from car and ship fuel. It could cost less than five cents per litre of fuel.

“It’s not often that an alarming problem affecting millions of people can be reduced, and at low cost,” López de la Osa adds.

“Dirty fumes caused by planes can be drastically reduced if we clean up the fuel. The road and shipping sectors took this necessary step years ago, but the aviation world has been dragging its feet.”

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Reducing air traffic and cutting the aviation industry’s growth or using sustainable aviation fuel and emerging zero-emissions aircraft tech could also help bring down UFP emissions.

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