Ultrafine particles from aircraft engines can spread miles downwind of airports and can endanger lives

There is growing evidence that suggests tiny particles – ultrafine – of air pollution can affect the heart, lungs, blood pressure and risk foetal growth. These tiny particles, as well as larger ones, are emitted from vehicle engines and from plane engines. The tinier the particle, the further it can get into the lung, and thus into the blood circulation – and hence the widespread effects. Now research by Dr Gary Fuller at Gatwick has shown that the number of ultrafine particles 500 metres downwind of the airport was greater than those at the kerb of London’s busiest roads. They mostly came from aircraft during takeoff and landing, but traffic, car parks and a large catering facility used to cook airline food all added to the problem. Ultrafine particles can travel a long way downwind of an airport, eg. miles from the airport in Los Angeles, and also miles into London from Heathrow. Although known to be a health hazard, ultrafine particles are not included in the environmental assessments for planning applications, putting us at risk of increased air pollution for decades to come.


Pollutionwatch: ultrafine particles from aircraft engines endanger lives

Growing evidence suggests tiny particles can affect the heart, lungs, blood pressure and risk foetal growth

By Dr Gary Fuller  @drgaryfuller (Scientist at Imperial College)

Fri 11 Feb 2022  (The Guardian)

The clear blue skies of the first lockdown are being crisscrossed by contrails once again. These white lines are caused by ice crystals that form on the huge numbers of tiny, ultrafine particles that come from aircraft engines. Ultrafine particles are far smaller than the wavelength of light, but contrails are a rare example of them being made visible.

Ultrafine particles are not just a problem in the skies above us. Airports are a large source, and my latest research has been searching for these tiny particles close to Gatwick. They were not hard to find. The number of ultrafine particles 500 metres downwind of the airport was greater than those at the kerb of London’s busiest roads. They mostly came from aircraft during takeoff and landing, but traffic, car parks and a large catering facility used to cook airline food all added to the problem.

In 2021, the Dutch Health Council and the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the growing evidence that ultrafine particles are damaging our health. This includes 75 studies; mostly relating to lung inflammation, blood pressure and heart problems, along with risks to foetal growth. However, technical differences between the studies meant that the WHO has not set a standard.

We are yet to understand the spread of ultrafine particles from Gatwick, but we do know they can travel a long way. Ultrafine particles from aircraft have been found across the Los Angeles suburbs. We have found ultrafine particles from Heathrow across large areas of west London, and they can be detected more than 12 miles (20km) away in the city centre. It is a similar situation in several European cities, meaning millions of people are exposed.


More than 10 years ago I was part of a study that found day to day changes in ultrafine particles in London matched the number of people dying or going to hospital with heart problems. Since then, I have tracked reductions in ultrafine particles in our cities as a side-effect of regulations to tackle other air pollutants. These include removing sulphur impurities from diesel fuel and requiring particle filters on the exhausts of new vehicles.

Researchers have suggested that sulphur is removed from aircraft fuel too, to match the tight limits on sulphur in diesel and petrol. This would be a possible solution for ultrafine particles.

In the meantime, Bristol airport’s expansion was approved earlier this month and Gatwick is applying to increase capacity by bringing its emergency runway into regular use. Ultrafine particles are not included in the environmental assessments, putting us at risk of increased air pollution for decades to come.



More about Dr Gary Fuller:

Dr Gary Fuller

Faculty of MedicineSchool of Public Health

Senior Lecturer in Air Quality Measurement


+44 (0)20 7594 3307  Email  Website


Building E – Sir Michael Uren White City Campus


I lead the air pollution measurement team comprising nine staff. The team run air pollution measurement networks in London, south east England and Leicester.  I also manage projects that support local authority air quality management. These have included apps and websites to provide air pollution information, alerting services for Sussex and the London Mayor as well as data collection for to the national networks. I also lead applied research projects for central, London and local government and for the Environment Agency.

Having led the development of the London Air Quality Network to become the largest urban network in Europe I have solid grounding in air quality measurement techniques. I have also pursued network data analysis techniques to characterise sources, trends and changes in urban air pollution to determine if policies to improve air pollution are actually working.

I have developed and applied source apportionment techniques to quantify the local impacts of PM arising from sources that are not currently represented in emissions inventories including construction activity, waste management and more recent measurement programmes have focused on PM from urban wood burning.

My early career in a private-sector laboratory along with my subsequent role providing science support for all levels of government means that my teaching is firmly grounded in a practitioner view. I lead an MSc module in air pollution measurement. I also teach on public health courses at King’s and at the University of Birmingham and I teach on a wood burning course at the University of Leeds. I have successfully supervised three PhD students to completion.

As a member of the Medical Research Council Centre for Environment and Health I work with toxicologists, clinicians and epidemiologists promoting the best use of air pollution measurements in health studies. I am a member of Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group, a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper since 2010 and author of “The Invisible Killer – the rising global threat of air pollution and how we can fight back” published by Melville House Books.


Dr Gary Fuller’s Time is Ticking webinar can be seen here  https://youtu.be/RM5EXZKNoAk

His full report here

The Environment Act here

See also some other recent air pollution stories:


Years of exposure to air pollution and road traffic noise may raise heart failure risk

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UK government will not commit to immediate lowering of air pollution levels to WHO limits

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Effects on cardiovascular and respiratory systems of short-term exposures to ultrafine particles in air, near an airport, in healthy subjects

There is a growing body of research into the negative health impacts of very tiny particulate air pollution. The nanoparticles of ≤20 nm are produced by vehicle engines, but seem to be produced in considerable amounts by jet engine. A new study in the Netherlands looked at impacts on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of 21 healthy young (18 – 35), non-smoking volunteers. They were exposed between 2 and 5 times to 5 hour periods of the ambient air near Schiphol airport, while doing intermittent moderate exercise like cycling. Various aspects of their circulation and respiration were measured. The study found the exposures  were associated with decreased FVC (forced vital capacity – a measure of lung function) and prolonged QTc intervals (the time it takes the heart to re-polarise for the next beat).The effects were relatively small, but they appeared after single exposures of 5 h in young healthy adults. “As this study cannot make any inferences about long-term health impacts, appropriate studies investigating potential health effects of long-term exposure to airport-related UFP, are urgently needed.”

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Air pollution is likely to increase the chance of developing Type 2 diabetes

Research in 2015 showed that there is a link between air pollution and the development of Type 2 diabetes. [That is the diabetes people generally acquire later in life, that is treated with medication, rather than insulin injection].  The study looked at 102 published studies from various countries. The results stated:  “Air pollution is a leading cause of insulin resistance and incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus. The association between air pollution and diabetes is stronger for traffic associated pollutants, gaseous, nitrogen dioxide, tobacco smoke and particulate matter.” And the conclusions: “Exposure to air pollutants is significantly associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. It is suggested that, environmental protection officials must take high priority steps to minimize the air pollution, hence to decrease the incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus.” There is probably more research needed, to establish details, but it appears that there is definite positive link between the two.  So areas with high levels of particulate and NOX air pollution, such as around Heathrow, are likely to see more ill health, including more diabetes.

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