Heathrow pollution: ‘Killing Me Softly…’

CHATR: Heathrow pollution: ‘Killing Me Softly…’

Following evidence that over 9,500 Londoners die from pollution each year, Hamish Pringle, Head of Creative Strategy for CHATR, examines the implications of expanding Heathrow on West London’s population.


Noise isn't the only pollution


Most people think about the noise pollution when they think about Heathrow.  However, even the noise-aware are largely oblivious to a much more insidious threat to their health and well-being: pollution caused by planes.

When you see a small aircraft spraying crops the insecticide is often visible against the light. 

However with passenger jets passing overhead one’s focus is on the abominable noise.  You just don’t see the pollution.  Yet pollution there is, and every flight is like a poisonous crop spray with invisible nitrous oxides falling upon us. 


Noxious NOx


They say “what you don’t see doesn’t hurt you” and for decades airport operators, jet engine manufacturers, Governments, regulators and commercial interests have glossed over the progressive poisoning of the communities which lie under current and proposed flight paths.  Happily the tide of public opinion has turned and forced the Government to reassess the options for increased airport capacity in the South East.  The ‘decision not to decide’ just before last Christmas marked the high tide in Heathrow’s hubristic certainty that they had won the right to future profits, whilst polluting the people beneath.


Environmental Audit Committee 


Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee report, published on 1st December 2015, confirmed officially what many campaigners had long believed, which was that the Airports Commission report of July 2015 had not taken full account of the pollution issues, and had used too much wishful thinking and speculative assumptions in arguing that Heathrow could overcome the pollution hurdle.

In their report MPs said the airport must demonstrate that: “it can reconcile Heathrow expansion with legal air pollution limits; commit to covering the costs of surface transport improvements; commit to introducing a night flight ban; and show that an expanded Heathrow would be less noisy than a two runway Heathrow”.  Huw Irranca-Davies MP said: "The Government has a duty to reduce illegal levels of air pollution in London to protect the health and well-being of its population. The Communities living near to the roads around Heathrow already put up with noise and extra traffic, it would be quite unacceptable to subject them to a potentially significant deterioration in air quality as well. Increased pollution should certainly not be permitted on the grounds that other areas of London are even more polluted."


So where does this pollution come from and how bad is it for us?  There are two main sources: planes landing and taking off at Heathrow, and motor vehicles transporting passengers and freight to and from the airport.


Planes landing and taking off


Let’s take the planes first.  The average passenger jet drops 25kilograms of NOx (oxides of nitrogen) during each landing and take-off cycle.  An average diesel engine car would have to drive 200,000 miles to deliver the same amount of poisonous gases into the environment.  Under current rules the number of flights at Heathrow is capped at 480,000 and the actual number averages about 476,000.  This means that 11,900,000 kilograms, or 1,100 ten-ton lorries’ worth of NOx, is being dropped on our heads every year.  If Heathrow gets its way their third runway will increase the annual number of flights to over 700,000 spraying 17,000 tons of pollutants.

Since Heathrow accounts for 28% of all the people affected by noise we can assume these same 725,000 citizens bear the brunt of the NOx sprayed on them.  This means each person receives 16 kilograms of NOx per year.  Is it any wonder that it’s estimated over 9,000 people a year die prematurely in London due to our polluted environment, and unquantified numbers suffer from exacerbated respiratory illnesses?


London illegal


Nor is it any surprise that London breached its pollution target for the whole year in January.  According to The Guardian on 8th January “London has already breached annual pollution limits just one week into 2016, and only weeks after the government published its plans to clean up the UK’s air.  At 7am on Friday, Putney High Street in West London breached annual limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced by diesel vehicles that has been linked to respiratory and heart problems.  Under EU rules, sites are only allowed to breach hourly limits of 200 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air 18 times in a year, but this morning Putney broke that limit for the 19th time.”


Car crash


Heathrow has tried to separate and mitigate the sources of pollution at the airport by saying that it’s not responsible for the problems caused by the vehicular traffic that goes to and fro.  This is a typical evasion.  If Heathrow isn’t responsible, then why do its proposals for a third runway include provision for a £799,000,000 investment to provide car parking spaces?


Freight fright


Another key source of vehicular pollution which is little discussed is the huge quantity of freight lorries which serve Heathrow airport.  As the Airports Commission noted: “Heathrow is also the country’s largest air freight hub, carrying more freight by value than all the other UK airports combined.”  If there were to be a third runway this diesel-heavy lorry traffic would increase by perhaps 30% with pollution to match.

A large proportion of this international air freight is carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft which makes a significant contribution to the profitability of these flights, hence Heathrow’s lobbying to increase the number of long haul slots they can sell.  But of course the cargo doesn’t travel by magic carpet to its end-destination.   Thus a major redistribution infrastructure has accreted around Heathrow, despite it not being as near the centre of the country as Luton airport.  This self-fulfilling prophesy has become a key argument for expanding Heathrow while little has been said of the potential for segmentation of aircraft traffic between the six airports which serve London.

Transport for London carried out a rigorous examination of the Airports Commission (AC) report and here’s what they had to say about pollution; “The AC has shown that, without mitigation, Heathrow expansion will lead to the Bath Road having the worst NO2 concentrations in Greater London.  The AC quantifies potential mitigations to show that the Bath Road might avoid being the worst location for NO2 concentrations in Greater London – however, this approach is legally doubtful and in practice flawed…” http://content.tfl.gov.uk/tfl-response-to-airports-commissions-final-recommendation.pdf




I made my first airplane flight in 1958 and became a proud member of the Junior Jet Club amassing hundreds of thousands of miles.  In those days “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was the song I most associated with air travel, with its lyrics fitting the romance of departures and arrivals so well.  Nowadays it’s "Killing Me Softly With His Song", which comes to mind whenever I see a passenger jet heading towards Heathrow.  For each of these flights is killing us softly. 


Hamish Pringle is Head of Creative Strategy for CHATR, and has developed recently the ‘Heathrow Hurdles’ campaign for HACAN.