Can living near an airport make you ill?

June 25, 2024

Aviation’s health effects on populations near airports

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Aviation emissions are a climate concern, and also have a serious impact on air quality. Yet, this issue has not received much attention from regulators or the aviation industry.

When jet fuel is burnt, it releases particulate matter (PM) of different sizes, including ultrafine particles (UFPs), tiny particles below the size of 100 nanometre in diameter - approximately 1000 times smaller than a human hair. Despite growing evidence that UFP exposure can contribute to respiratory symptoms, heart rate variability, blood pressure problems and have long-term effects on mortality, this pollutant remains largely under researched and unregulated. 

The study provides a first estimate of the health effects caused by aviation-related UFPs in Europe, by summarizing the available scientific evidence, and extrapolating data from the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport area to the main European airports. The analysis estimates that a total of 280,000 cases of high blood pressure, 330,000 cases of diabetes, and 18,000 cases of dementia may be linked to UFP emissions among the 51,5 million people living around the 32 busiest airports in Europe.

The study also assesses the correlation between jet fuel quality, UFP emissions and health impact. The amount of UFPs emitted from flights depends strongly on the composition of aviation fuel. The study estimates that the use of a 100% hydrotreated jet fuel with very low sulphur and aromatics, which can reduce up to 70% of the number of UFP emissions, would also reduce the associated health impacts by 70%.

To reduce aviation’s UFP emissions, and thus improve air quality and mitigate the adverse health impacts, T&E recommends the following measures:

  • Address exponential increase in air traffic and air pollution by banning further expansion of airport infrastructure, introduction of flight caps, promoting shift to rail, reducing business travel and targeted taxation of the aviation sector.

  • Install sampling points in and around airports in Member States to better quantify UFPs concentration levels with a view of introducing target values for UFP concentrations in next review of the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

  • Create an EU jet fuel standard with a progressive reduction of aromatics and sulphur content which will prepare the ecosystem for 0-aromatic, 0-sulphur SAF.

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