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Ultrafine particles from aircraft pose hidden threat to human health

As travel begins to recover from the pandemic’s economic havoc, growing evidence suggests contrail content damages the lungs, heart, and foetal development.

Last year, the Dutch Health Council and World Health Organisation (WHO) highlighted a series of research projects that showed the level of harm caused by ultrafine particles from aircraft engines. In total, 75 studies were referenced, which point to inflammation of the lungs, issues with blood pressure, heart problems and impeded growth of unborn babies. 

Now Dr. Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist with Imperial College London, has published a feature in The Guardian newspaper based on new research focused on Gatwick Airport, the UK’s second busiest. According to the report, the level of ultrafine particles found 500metres downwind of the hub were greater than those at the side of London’s most congested roads, with a combination of planes taking off and landing, cars and other vehicles, alongside large airline catering facilities all contributing to the issue.

white airplane flying under the blue sky

Past observational work has shown that ultrafine aircraft particles are found across suburban Los Angeles, with this type of emission from flights into and out of Heathrow, London’s main site of air travel, tracked more than 12miles away in the centre of the UK capital. It’s argued both these instances prove ultrafine particles can spread well beyond their source. 

Fuller also points to another study, undertaken more than ten years ago, which drew correlations between day-to-day ultrafine particle levels in London, and the number of people dying in the city’s hospitals from heart issues. It is thought work to remove sulphur from aircraft fuel, bringing this in line with petrol and diesel, could significantly improve the situation. 

In related news, a 2021 study showed the five largest European airports – Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam Schipol, and Madrid Barajas, emitted more CO2 than the entire Swedish economy. 

Image credit: William Hook

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