Earth Talk: Is It Unhealthy To Live Near An Airport?

EARTH TALK: Questions & Answers About Our Environment

Dear EarthTalk: Is it unhealthy for you to live near an airport?

—M. Smith, Pittsburgh, PA

Living near an airport can have negative effects on health and quality of life due to noise pollution and air pollution from aircrafts. The noise from airplanes can disrupt sleep, increase stress levels and lead to hearing loss. Air pollution from aircrafts can have negative impacts on respiratory and cardiovascular health. However, the degree to which these negative effects occur can vary depending on factors such as the proximity to the airport, the number of flights, and the type of aircraft.

Living near an airport can exacerbate pre-existing health problems due to the increased load of pollutants in the air. Credit: Tanathip Rattanatum,

A study supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in collaboration with the University of California and Columbia University found that people who lived within six miles of 12 of California’s largest airports exhibited higher levels of asthma and heart-related problems. Admissions for respiratory issues like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at nearby hospitals were 17 percent higher than the baseline average. Heart issues also saw an increase—by as much as nine percent.

In another study led by Rima Habre, an associate professor of clinical population and public health sciences, it was found that the culprit may be something known as ultra-fine particulate matter (UFP), a form of pollution emitted by aircraft, especially in the vicinity of airports. In her study, she hoped to observe the effects of acute exposure by asking participants to take walks in a park that was near a Los Angeles airport, as well as a park that was further away. She discovered that the inhalation of UFPs led to an increased inflammatory response in not only the lungs, but the entire circulatory system of the participants with asthma shortly after exposure. As Habre further elaborates, UFPs are not regulated, and many individuals who live in the vicinity of high-traffic airports are assuredly at risk.

Lead exposure is another issue that many aren’t aware of. A study published earlier this month in PNAS Nexus discovered elevated blood-lead levels in children who lived near the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California. The source of the lead pollution was found to be piston-engine aircrafts–small single or two-propeller aircraft commonly used for training or trailing advertisement banners.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), older adults, those with heart or lung-related conditions, and children (especially at schools), are also vulnerable to UFP pollution. In fact, researchers from the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) have stated that air quality inside a classroom can be worse than the air quality outside. Thankfully, the researchers are working on a solution that involves portable air purifiers, as well as upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Their research, known as the Healthy Air, Healthy Schools Project, is in part being conducted at 20 schools near SeaTac Airport, and will involve the use of purifiers with and without filters, along with an analysis of academic performance. Hopes are that the findings will inform future endeavors related to the improvement of air quality not only in schools, but in other buildings used by the public on a daily basis.


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