Most UK airports miss EU pollution targets

The majority of British airports are way of target when it comes to keeping levels of nitrogen dioxide within safe limits, according to a new study.

The EU says NO2 levels must remain below 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air to be safe and these aspirational targets are set to become law in 2010.

According to a study carried out by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), however, several British airports exceed these limits by as much as 75% and most others miss the target, albeit by a smaller margin.

Of the 23 airports where readings were taken, only Sandown on the Isle of Wight had levels below the standard for the toxic atmospheric pollutant.

In high enough concentrations NO2 can cause sever breathing difficulties and irritate the lungs.

At the top of CSP’s list of shame were London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Newcastle and Birmingham, all of which recorded between 60 and 70 µg/m3 of the gas.

Officials at Birmingham are so far the only airport to defend their result, arguing that readings were skewed as they were taken alongside a busy motorway and the vast majority of traffic there had no link with the airport.

For Heathrow the report is more than a PR blemish as hopes of building a new runway at the airport hang on its ability to meet EU air quality standards.

Readings at Manchester, Liverpool, Blackpool, Sheffield, Humberside, London City, Southampton, Exeter and Gloucester were all up to 50% above the EU limit, at 50 to 60 µg/m3.

Teeside, Norwich and Plymouth airports all narrowly missed the targets with readings between 40 and 50 µg/m3 while the remainder of those tested – Leeds/Bradford, Luton, Cambridge, Ipswich Airport, London’s Biggin Hill and

Shoreham were all just about within the upper limit of the guidelines, with 30 to 40 µg/m3.

Respiratory physiotherapists say the consequences of being exposed to the gas can be especially severe among people with existing lung conditions, like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

CSP spokesman, Professor Grahame Pope, said “The effects of airport emissions on air quality and public health are of serious concern to physiotherapists.

‘It’s not just nitrogen dioxide polluting the environment around airports; our study reveals high ozone concentrations at some sites too.

“There’s no doubt that aircraft contribute to the problem, but it should be noted that cars, buses and taxis ferrying passengers to and from these sites are dominant sources of pollution.

“With cheap flights making air travel more affordable, several airports want to expand capacity. We would urge the government to consider ways of balancing passenger convenience with improving public health when looking at these proposals.”

Of 33 airports in England and Wales, all but two – Sheffield City and Heathrow – have levels which exceed Defra’s Air Quality Strategy’s targets.

Meanwhile environmental pressure groups continue to chip away at the economic drivers that make cheap flights possible.

Friends of the Earth claimed this week that tax breaks save airlines in the UK £9.2 billion every year, equivalent to around £300 for every tax payer.

Because of these tax breaks, FoE’s argument goes, the public is having to make up the difference through higher national insurance and income tax.

Passenger numbers in the UK rose by 8% in 2004.

FoE is calling for an extra tax of £10 per passenger per flight to make those responsible for the pollution foot the bill.

“The Chancellor must put an end to these unfair and damaging tax breaks, and take action to make airlines pay for the impact that their activities are having on our climate,” said aviation campaigner Richard Dyer.

“Increasing Air Passenger Duty in the Budget would be a welcome first step to reducing the growth in flights which threaten environmental disaster.”

by Sam Bond

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