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Air pollution

Average levels of NO2 across London in 2010 displays Heathrow airport as a hot spot next to central London. Image Credit: Cleaner Air for London

Air pollution at airports arises from a combination of aircraft and road traffic emissions (both passenger vehicles and vans and lorries collecting air freight). Heathrow is the only UK airport located in an area known to have air pollution levels that are consistently above legal air quality limits, though pollution can be harmful at lower levels. The last analysis of UK airports was prepared for the 2003 Airports White paper.

AEF helped to highlight the risk that would be associated with building a third Heathrow runway at a time when the area was in breach of NO2 standards even with existing traffic levels – an expansion plan that was delayed while the airport and Government tried to develop a plan to improve air quality, and eventually scrapped by the incoming Government on environmental grounds. We have also campaigned internationally for tougher manufacturing standards for new aircraft, and in 2010 the UN body ICAO agreed to increased the stringency of the NOx aircraft engine standard by 15%.

We continue to raise air pollution as an issue in relation to new runways and have called on the CAA to include information about air quality around airports in the environmental information portal it is developing under the 2012 Civil Aviation Act.

Air Pollution Facts

  • Air pollution is comparable to obesity and alcohol in its impacts on public health but receives far less attention. Each year, around 29,000 deaths are attributable to air pollution in the UK (related to particle matter, no official estimates related to NO2), at a cost to the economy of around £54 billion a year, or 3.7% of GDP, according to the WHO.
  • After central London, Heathrow is the second major hot spot for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in London. All EU states have committed to air quality standards aimed at protecting public health. The UK has consistently failed to achieve the standards for NO2 and PM10, and the European Commission has launched legal action which may result in substantial fines.
  • When arguing for a third runway at Heathrow, Gordon Brown’s government claimed that air pollution in the area would in fact improve in future as a result of both more efficient aircraft engines and new standards for road vehicles. But in 2008 a BBC Panorama programme revealed that this forecast relied on aircraft technology that was not even on the drawing board. A 2012 paper by Drs Carslaw and Beevers of Kings College London subsequently found, ‘strong evidence that there has been no change in aircraft NOx emissions at Heathrow Airport over the past 11 years.’
  • Improvements predicted for road vehicles, when reviewed several years after the original modelling, were also found not to be taking place as quickly as the model had assumed.
  • A 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that ozone and particulate (PM2.5) pollution from aircraft contributed to 16,000 premature deaths a year worldwide, costing an estimated $21 billion a year.


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