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Air pollution: a quiet killer

16th April, 2010

Living near an airport can have serious health consequences. In December last year we reported  on research from the German Environment Agency which found that men exposed to aircraft noise have a 69% higher risk of being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease, while women who exposed to aircraft noise during the day are 172% more likely to suffer a stroke.

Now two new reports have underlined the significance on human health of air pollution. As a result of emissions from both aircraft and associated passenger and freight traffic overland, airports can become pollution hotspots. The area around Heathrow airport has been in breach of EC limits for nitrogen dioxide for many years.

The Environmental Audit Committee (a committee of MPs from across the political spectrum, currently suspended pending a general election) published the results of its inquiry into air pollution on 16th March. Poor air quality, the committee found, reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely in the UK because of it. It has been linked, the committee reported, “to asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart and circulatory disease, and cancer.”

Assessments of the financial costs and benefits of taking action, the Committee went on to argue, underplay the health and environmental benefits of improving air quality while taking no account of any possible EU fines for breaches of the mandatory limits. They recommended that the impact on premature deaths and the cost to the NHS of poor air quality should be quantified, and that the government should urgently improve understanding of the health effects of exposure to nitrogen dioxide.

London NO2 2010 1 2

London NO2 levels in 2008. Any areas in yellow or red, including the yellow patch in West London, are in exceedence of the limit (from the Mayor’s draft air quality strategy 2010)

Around the same time, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, issued his draft air quality strategy for the capital, which set out a range of measures designed to help tackle the problem. Yet the strategy forecast its own failure, admitting that these steps will fall short of bringing us into line with EU law, and that even by 2015 levels of nitrogen dioxide in the Heathrow area will exceed the limit values. Central government, argues the Mayor, will need to help close this gap. He continues to oppose the building of a third Heathrow runway because of the local environmental damage it would bring.

In January this year the GLA Environment Committee reported its ‘grave concern’ about the likelihood of an expanded Heathrow being about to meet the EU’s standards on air pollution.