The dangers of airplanes and ultrafine particles

Tiny ultrafine particles (UFPs), 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 UFPs, which are unregulated, may be increasing.1,2

Scientists say more research is urgently needed. And awareness of the dangers of UFPs has improved since researchers first uncovered the link between ultrafine particles and air travel.

But the full extent of just how dangerous UFPs from airplanes are to human health is still unknown, and protection from UFPs requires specific air filtration techniques.

What are ultrafine particles?

Ultrafine particles are defined as particulate matter smaller than 0.1 microns in diameter.3 They’re mostly generated by combustion reactions that are used to power vehicle engines, industrial facilities, diesel-powered trucks, and aviation engines.

Current government air quality regulations and standards do not cover UFPs, yet these tiny contaminants may account for more than 90% of all airborne pollution particles.4

Ultrafine particles are associated with:

• asthma5
• allergies6
• respiratory disease7
• heart attacks8
• strokes9
• cancer10

Ultrafine particle levels higher than typical near airports

UFPs have been found in especially high levels near airports, where airplane engines produce high concentrations of UFPs as they fly across nearby cities and neighborhoods.

A series of studies commissioned by airport officials and conducted by third-party researchers in the past decade has gradually uncovered 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.11,12,13

These studies reported that ultrafine particle concentrations east of the airport were especially higher than typical levels.

Airport officials have continuously pledged to continue studying ultrafine particle levels in the wake of these results.

But you may be wondering: why would ultrafine particle concentrations be rising even when the level of other airborne pollutants seems to be under control?

Mike Feldman, former Los Angeles World Airports deputy executive director (now retired), 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," Feldman has expressed to local newspapers.14

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.15

The study, released in 2010 and based on research from 2006 and 2007, was prepared by SCAQMD for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.16.17 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 2011 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.18 Numerous studies have corroborated these findings.19,20

How can I protect myself from ultrafine particles?

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.21

One line of defense against breathing UFPs may be a high-performance air purifier that is effective at filtering UFPs.

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 covers all possible UFP pollutants, effectively protecting you from any of the well-documented health effects linked to UFP air pollution.

The number one air cleaning solution for your home.

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