A growing body of evidence suggests that tiny particles can affect the heart, lungs, blood pressure and endanger fetal growth.
The clear blue sky of the first lockdown is once again pierced with contrails. These white lines are caused by ice crystals that form in the myriad of tiny, ultrafine particles from aircraft engines.
Ultrafine particles are much smaller than the wavelength of light, but contrails are a rare example of how they become visible.
Ultrafine particles aren’t just a problem in the skies above us. Airports are a big source, and my latest research looked for these tiny particles near Gatwick. They weren’t hard to find.
The number of ultrafine particles 500 meters downwind of the airport was higher than on the pavements of London’s busiest roads. They came mostly from planes during takeoff and landing, but traffic, parking lots and a large catering facility used to cook airline food compounded the problem.
In 2021, the Dutch Health Council and the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the growing evidence that ultrafine particles harm our health. This includes 75 studies; mainly related to lung inflammation, blood pressure and heart problems, as well as risks to fetal growth. However, technical differences between the studies mean that the WHO has not set a standard.
Ultrafine particles Gatwick
We have not yet understood the propagation of ultrafine particles from Gatwick, but we do know that they can travel long distances. Ultrafine particles from airplanes have been found in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
We found ultrafine particles from Heathrow over large areas of West London, and they can be detected over 20 km (12 miles) away in the city centre. It is a similar situation in several European cities, which means that millions of people are exposed.
Over 10 years ago I was involved in a study which found that daily changes in ultrafine particles in London correlated with the number of people dying or going to hospital with heart problems.
Since then, I’ve tracked reductions in our cities as a side effect of regulations targeting other air pollutants. These include removing sulfur impurities from diesel fuel and requiring particulate filters on the exhaust of new vehicles.
The researchers suggested that sulfur should also be removed from jet fuel, to match strict limits on sulfur in diesel and gasoline. This would be a possible solution for ultrafine particles.
Meanwhile, the Bristol Airport expansion was approved earlier this month and Gatwick is asking to increase capacity by bringing its emergency runway into regular service.
Ultrafine particles are not included in environmental assessments, exposing us to more air pollution in the decades to come.
By Gary Fuller. Articles in English