Tiny ultrafine particles, the smallest and most dangerous pollution particles in the air, are a growing air quality concern for millions who live or work near airports. Even as air quality agencies are reporting acceptable levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and "fine" particulate matter (PM 2.5) near airports, the levels of ultrafine particles, which are unregulated, may be increasing. Scientists say more research is urgently needed.
Ultrafine particles are defined as particulate matter smaller than 0.1 microns in diameter. Current government air quality regulations and standards do not cover ultrafine particles, yet these tiny contaminants account for more than 90% of all airborne pollution particles. Ultrafine particles are associated with asthma, allergies and other respiratory disease as well as heart attacks, strokes and even cancer.
Ultrafine particle levels higher than typical
In June, a study commissioned by airport officials and conducted by third-party researchers reported that the air quality around the Los Angeles International Airport was not much different from the air quality generally in the region, except for one area of concern: ultrafine particles. The study reported that ultrafine particle concentrations east of the airport were higher than typical levels.
Airport officials pledged to continue studying ultrafine particle levels in the wake of these results. Why would ultrafine particle concentrations be rising even when the level of other airborne pollutants seems to be under control? Mike Feldman, deputy facilities director for the airport operator, noted that the fuel-burning technology that has made jet aircraft more fuel efficient in recent years also produces smaller particles than before. "It's something that science doesn't know much about," he told a local newspaper.
Other studies, similar findings
A report on air quality near the Van Nuys (Calif.) airport, conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), revealed significant spikes in ultrafine particle concentrations at a nearby school, golf course and radio tower when planes were taking off and landing. The study, released in 2010 and based on research from 2006 and 2007, was prepared by SCAQMD for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The study also reported similar results for the air quality near Santa Monica (Calif.) Airport, another regional airport.
The presence of elevated levels of ultrafine particles near airports might help explain the health-related findings of other airport studies. For example, a study conducted by Germany's Federal Environment Agency found a 69% increased risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular disease among men living near airports, though the cause was primarily attributed to noise.
Ultrafine particles go directly to lungs
Unlike larger particle pollutants, ultrafine particles are absorbed directly in the lungs where they have the ability to penetrate tissue and be absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
One line of defense against breathing ultrafine particles for those who live or work near airports may be a high-performance air purifier that is effective at filtering ultrafine particles. While ordinary HEPA air purifiers focus on filtering particles 0.3 microns or larger, IQAir’s air cleaning filtration technology is proven and certified effective against particles of all sizes, including ultrafine particles down to 0.003 microns in diameter, the smallest particles that exist.
This online publication is brought to you by The IQAir Group, which develops innovative air quality solutions for indoor environments around the globe. IQAir is the exclusive educational partner of the American Lung Association for the air purifier industry.