It has never seemed like a good idea to live beneath the flight pattern of jets approaching or leaving a major metropolitan airport, and a new study of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) confirms that suspicion but greatly expands the danger zone.
Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at USC and the University of Washington found ultrafine particulate matter, which may contribute to heart and lung disease, from the exhaust of planes taking off and landing at LAX 10 mikes away.
They stopped at 10 miles because, “We just ran out of drive time,” researcher Scott Fruin told a writer for American Chemical Society’s Chemical Engineering & News.
No one in the past had looked more than three miles away, at fixed locations, and they were often measuring the larger particulate matter that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set standards for. However, the tiny stuff can burrow into lungs and get into the blood stream.
In its introduction, a 2012 report (pdf) by the Danish Ecocouncil, “Air Pollution in Airports,” noted that ultrafine particles “cause cancer, heart disease, blood clots, brain haemorrhage (sic) and airway diseases (bronchitis, COPD), thereby increasing the risk of serious work related illness and premature death.”
This time, researchers drove downwind and measured along the way in real time. L.A.’s prevailing winds made it easier to follow the path of pollutants through the broad, heavily-populated corridor. The researchers made 30 excursions over three years and used methods to isolate the airport’s contribution to the exhaust fumes from the freeways that crisscross Los Angeles County.
To their surprise, they calculated that ultrafine pollution from LAX was equivalent to half of all the freeways in the area. The concentration of dangerous ultrafine material was 10 times normal within two miles east of the airport. It was four times normal six miles away. Ten miles away, it was double.
This is not the first study to look at ultrafine pollution at LAX. Fruin was an air pollution specialist at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) when he worked on a study (pdf), released in 2007, that measured the particles at fixed locations in the vicinity of the airport in 2003. It was only a few years after ultrafine material first began receiving the attention of researchers.
Fruin and company found lots of it, which they could quantify in pages of charts and graphs. What they couldn’t quantify was the threat posed to people by ultrafine particles because government ambient air standards for them did not exist.
“Thus air quality regulators and land use planners are not compelled to consider this PM metric as airport operations and expansions are reviewed,” the 2007 report said.
Those standards still don’t exist, but the newer report suggests that if or when they do regulators and planners will need to expand their scope of application more than a few miles down the road.