Aircraft over Heathrow airport

Heathrow pollution found in central London

Discovery of ultra fine particles many miles from airports prompts call for more research into health impact.
09 January 2020 , Katie Coyne

Tiny particles of pollution from Heathrow airport have been found miles away in central London, a groundbreaking study has found.

The ability of ultra fine particles (UFP) to travel large distances means people are breathing in pollution from nearby airports, as well as from local traffic, the Kings College London study found.

The report was focused on four cities – London, Barcelona, Helsinki, and Zurich – but has widespread implications.

Research on particle pollution has generally focused on PM2.5 or PM10 and shown that increased levels of exposure can increase mortality rates. But there are few studies on UFPs, which are even smaller and are thought to also have a significant impact on health.

Now UFPs have been shown to travel wide distances, scientists have said new research is now needed to evaluate the sources of UFPs and their impact on mortality and hospital admissions. 

Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist at Kings College London, said there was growing concern among the scientific community about the health impacts of ultra fine particles.

“We regulate the weight of particles in the air but not the number. There is some evidence emerging that the number of particles in the air might be having a separate effect on our health, to mass, and a damaging one.

“As it’s possible to detect these really small particles many miles away, this signals that the health impact is also an emerging concern. There are millions of people living in urban areas close to airports being exposed to particles from aircraft. So the impact of airports spreads well beyond their perimeter.

“In public health if you have a large number of people exposed to even a small amount of risk, then the total impact can be quite large.”

London had the highest amount of UFP than other cities and all four cities had the greatest concentration of the smallest particles (called nucleation particles) when the wind was blowing from the airport.

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