Will Heathrow’s third runway lead to sky-high air pollution?

A third runway at Heathrow Airport would increase the number of annual flights to 280,000, and the number of passengers will almost double from 72 million to 130 million, with worrying implications for air quality. 

MP’s have argued that this expansion is in the longterm interest of the UK’s economy, with benefits to the wider economy estimated as being upwards of £61bn.

However, campaigners argue that expanding one of the top polluting industries threatens to undermine the UK’s global efforts to meet the legally binding commitments on climate change and it also poses an increased risk to residents and employees around Heathrow who will be exposed to greater levels of air pollution.

Aircraft engines generally combust fuel efficiently, but according to the Aviation Environment Federation, ground-level emissions during takeoff, climb and landing have a huge impact on ambient air quality.

According to the 2019 European Aviation Environmental Report, a two-engine aircraft carrying 150 passengers and travelling for one-hour releases 30kg of nitrogen oxide (NOx) into the atmosphere.

In 2015, NOx released from aircraft accounted for 14% of all EU transport emissions.

Long-term exposure to NOx can decrease lung function and increase the risk of respiratory conditions, and exposure to NO2 can lead to an increased likelihood of respiratory problems and the development of asthma.

Ultra-fine particles

Another major pollutant that is released from aviation is the smaller ultra-fine particles (UFP), which pose a considerable threat to human health. They have been linked to many deadly diseases from heart disease, chronic lung disease and brain cancer.

Researchers at King’s College London identified that when compared to other cities, London has the largest concentration of these ultrafine particles and the source is often directly from aircraft at Heathrow Airport.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that air pollution released directly from aircraft is responsible for 16,000 premature deaths across the world and they believe that as the aviation industry continues to grow so will this death-toll.

The emissions released from the aircraft themselves are not the only problem when it comes to air pollution, it is also important to consider the increased traffic that a greater number of passengers travelling to and from the airport will inevitably bring.

Road traffic statistics have revealed that many of the roads around Heathrow, including the M25, M4 and A4 are already some of the busiest and most polluted in the UK.

Bath Road, just outside of Heathrow Airport, is reported as having the worst air pollution in the whole of Greater London.

A spokesperson from Heathrow Airport told Air Quality News that Heathrow has strategies in place to mitigate air pollution from increased traffic: ‘We have been working to reduce the number of airport-related car journeys made by helping to improve bus and train links and incentivising our colleagues to take public transport over cars.

‘When the runway opens, we will also be introducing the UK’s first airport Ultra Low Emission Zone. This will incentivise the use of more sustainable transport and will reduce air quality emissions.’

More planes, more cars

However, as well as plans to improve public transport links, the expansion also involve the development of the ‘world’s largest carpark,’ which will have a capacity for 53,000 cars. Based on these plans it is clear that Heathrow Airport is expecting increased traffic and therefore, despite their pledges to increase public transport links, there are concerns that this will inevitably lead to a lot more vehicles on what are already some of the most polluted roads in the U.K.

The area surrounding Heathrow is currently the second most polluted part of London. Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) has 12 air monitoring sites in and around the airport, and daily mean particulate matter concentrations often exceed the 25μg/m3 World Health Organisation guideline.

In a report published in 2016, by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, it is estimated that the Heathrow expansion could increase the already dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) by 4-8μg/m3. Activist group AirportWatch estimate that this would put 47,000 homes at greater risk from air pollution, which would compromise the health of 121,377 people and would cost the NHS £10.8m through increased hospitalisations.

Tim Johnson, director of Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) told Air Quality News that Evidence is emerging all the time about the dangers of air pollution to public health.

‘The last time we had a comprehensive overview of UK airports was in 2003 as part of the then labour governments aviation whitepaper. We would like to see these air quality measurements reassessed,’ he said.

‘The other issue that the Heathrow expansion raises is the difference between complying with legal limits and the detrimental health impacts that these legal limits can still have. Legal limits often do not capture the whole range of harmful impacts.

‘New research is emerging all the time regarding the dangers that ultra-fine particles have on human health, it is clear that we still don’t understand the full picture, this means that policy often falls behind scientific knowledge.’

Cait Hewitt, deputy director of AEF also commented: ‘The idea of further developing an airport that is already one of the most polluted parts of London is a major concern for us.’

This article appears in Issue 2 of the Air Quality News magazine – which you can read here.

Photo Credit – Pixabay 

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