Air quality

Air pollution has significant impacts on the health of the European population, particularly in urban areas [13]. The most significant pollutants in terms of harm to human health are particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and groundlevel ozone (O3).

Aviation and air pollution

Air quality in the vicinity of airports is not just influenced by the emissions from aircraft engines, but also from other sources such as ground operations, surface access road transport and airport on-site energy generation and heating [90]. The most significant emissions related to health impacts from aviation activities are particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of these primary pollutants undergo chemical and physical transformations in the atmosphere that in turn produce other pollutants such as secondary particulate matter21 and ground-level ozone.

Nitrogen oxides (NOX)

NOX emissions are primarily produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, especially at high temperatures such as those experienced in aircraft engine combustors. In the atmosphere, nitrogen monoxide (NO) is rapidly oxidised to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is associated with adverse effects on human health such as lung inflammation. NO2 also plays a key role in the formation of secondary particles and ground-level ozone. Thus, nitrogen oxides have both a direct and an indirect impact on air quality.

Particulate matter (PM)

Particulate matter is a general term used to describe very small solid or liquid particles. Emissions from aviation related activities, in a similar manner to other sources using carbon-based fuels, contain PM10 and PM2.5 emissions22, as well as ultrafine particles (PM1, PM0.1) that have very small diameters [91]. Such small particles, irrespective of the combustion source, can deposit in the human lung, pass natural barriers in human cells and enter the bloodstream. Solid ultrafine particles can trigger inflammation and act as carriers for toxic substances that damage the genetic information in cells. The EU Ambient Air Quality Directives [14] contain regulatory limits for PM10 and PM2.5 in ambient air, but not for ultrafine particles. However, PM2.5 is considered to be a good indicator of general risk associated with exposure to particulate matter. As the mass of the ultrafine particle emissions is so low, measurements of aircraft engine emissions have also focused on the number of emitted particles.


The presence of ozone in the high-altitude stratosphere provides an essential natural shield against harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. However, ground-level ozone can cause several respiratory problems, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

21 Secondary particulate matter is formed from chemical reactions in the atmosphere from the gases ammonia (NH3), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), and from organic compounds.
22 The subscript ’10’ in PM10 refers to particles with a diameter of less than 10 microns (0.01 millimetres).

Evaluating the impact of aviation emissions

Most evaluations of air quality impacts from aviation have focused on the health impacts of PM2.5 formation attributable to aviation, with some others including the impact of ozone as well. Some studies [92], [93] have focused on landing and take-off emissions, as these happen at relatively low altitudes and therefore closest to local populations. A limited number of studies [94], [95] have also attempted to evaluate the impact of aviation emissions on human health at a global scale by including aircraft emissions at high altitude.

Research Studies

1. Schiphol and Copenhagen airports
The emissions of air pollutants from Amsterdam Schiphol airport have been found to contribute less than 5% to ambient concentrations of PM10 and NO2 near the airport, which suggest a limited impact on air quality [96]. However, in 2014 continuous measurements of ultrafine particles (total particle number per cubic centimetre of air), including condensed particles from gaseous precursors was performed at two different sites located 7 km and 40 km from the main airport site. While the emissions from aircraft did not lead to elevated particle concentrations in ambient air, it was found that they were the most important source of ultrafine particles during periods in which the predominant wind direction was from Schiphol.

A long-term occupational health study (1990-2012) at Copenhagen airport tracked the exposure to ultrafine particles and assessed the health of almost 70,000 people working in ground operations and other positions [97].

The results found no increased incidence of conditions linked to chronic exposure to air pollution such as heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, asthma, cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The results of both studies point to a knowledge gap in the formation, exposure and health effects of ultrafine particles from aviation that needs to be filled with additional research.

2. Medical faculty of the University of Bern
The REHEATE Project (Respiratory Health Effects of PM generated by Aircraft Turbine Engines) investigated the health effects of aircraft exhaust emissions on the human respiratory system. The study used a replicated human lung that provided realistic deposition of particles on normal and diseased lung cells from human donors.

The research thus far has focused on the characterization of the response to a high level of particle emissions from a common mid-sized turbofan engine, and a comparison to exposure of cells to filtered exhaust emissions. The tests were performed with both conventional and bio-based aviation fuels. Initial results suggest, as with other combustion sources (e.g. cars), significant responses of the lung cells. It supports the notion that control of the number of particles emitted, especially at low engine power settings, is important for health protection.