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Public health impact of large airports

16th February, 2005

The largest study of health impacts at airports was carried out for the dutch government and published in 1999. It is called “Public health impact of large airports”. It identified a range of health impacts: premature death; aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disorders (resulting in hospital admissions); decreased lung function; increase in chronic respiratory conditions; aggravation of asthma.

On the general issue of airports and air pollution, the report says “The contributions from aircraft, other airport operations, road traffic to or from the airport or to other destinations to the public health effects of air pollution in an airport operations system are intricately mixed. This is due to the spread of air pollutants in the atmosphere by dispersion processes, whereas total pollution is also determined by sources outside the system, possibly far away. The important conclusion is that air pollutant levels around large airports are similar to those in urbanised areas and are to a large extent determined by road traffic emissions. At such concentrations public health effects are to be expected, even though the concentrations are generally below official guideline values.”

More specifically on airports and health it says “The committee concludes that there is sufficient evidence that episodes of air pollution with levels observed within an airport operations system cause short-term effects like an increased mortality rate and an increased frequency of hospital admissions due to acute respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity. A decrease in pulmonary function is also one of the acute effects for which the committee considers there to be sufficient evidence. For increase of respiratory symptoms and aggravation of asthma attacks the evidence appears to be limited.”

It also says “Epidemiological research has also produced evidence for effects of long-term exposure to air pollutants. The committee qualifies the evidence for several health effects of long-term exposure to ambient air pollution as sufficient. More prospective studies could give further insights in the relationship of chronic exposure to air pollutants with chronic morbidity and mortality. One of the questions to be answered is to what extent the increase in respiratory conditions is due to exacerbation of existing disorders. Although it is plausible that air pollutants contribute in a modest way to cancer incidence, there is no evidence for specific contributions from local sources (e.g. PAH emissions by aircraft) in an airport operations system. Sufficient evidence exists for odour-induced annoyance. Psychosomatic and somatic effects of odour for which there is limited evidence, may be mediated by annoyance or be a direct effect of odour exposure.”

The study summarises the health effects and assesses how good the evidence is on a 3-point scale: * inadequate, inconsistent evidence; ** limited evidence; *** sufficient evidence. The severity of the impact is also shown: * slight; ** moderate; *** severe. Thirdly, the number of individuals affected is indicated : * susceptible individuals; ** specific subgroups; *** substantial part of exposed population.

The conclusions are:

Premature death: knowledge ***; severity ***; number *
Aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disorders (resulting
in hospital admissions): knowledge ***; severity ***; number *
Decreased lung function: knowledge ***; severity *; number *
Increase in chronic respiratory conditions: knowledge **; severity **
Aggravation of asthma: knowledge **; severity **

Full report (198 pages; over 3 Mbtyes); Summary (5 pages).