RIVM: The level of ultrafine particles around Schiphol is harmful to health

Residents near Schiphol, who have been exposed to ultrafine particles from aircraft for some time, may be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The emission of ultrafine particles can also be harmful to the health of unborn children.

This is the conclusion of the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in a study of the long-term health effects of ultrafine particles in thirty municipalities around Schiphol. RIVM first wanted to publish the study on Tuesday, but already confirmed the results on Monday after press releases.

The study of the long-term effects is the second and final part of RIVM’s research into ultrafine particles and aviation. Already in 2019, the institute announced the short-term consequences. “People living near Schiphol are regularly exposed to increased concentrations of ultrafine particles” [sic]”, RIVM stated in 2019. For example, children suffer more from respiratory disorders, such as shortness of breath and wheezing. Children also use more medication if the emissions in their environment are higher.

The future of Schiphol

The study is relevant to the discussion about the future of Schiphol. The study confirms the image that the airport has a negative effect on an ‘attractive and healthy living environment’. For example, the government always formulates one of the four public interests that it weights in the debate about Schiphol. The others are security, connectedness to the world and sustainability.

Successive cabinets have always allowed Schiphol to grow, but that policy now no longer seems sustainable due to nitrogen emissions, noise pollution and, in a broader context, climate objectives. Minister Mark Harbers (Infrastructure and Water Management, VVD) would therefore like to limit the number of flights at Schiphol by about 10 percent. A decision is expected one of these weeks. The structural contraction is independent of the temporary restrictions due to the holiday crowds.

The aviation memorandum, issued by the previous government in 2020, already states that a higher concentration of ultrafine particles is measured around airports. “These particles, which are invisible to the eye, can be harmful to health,” the memo states.

Medical data

For the report in 2019, RIVM counted the number of ultrafine dust particles in, among other places, schoolyard places around Schiphol. The new long-term research is of a more statistical nature; it combines long-term flight data from Schiphol with medical data from, among others, Dutch Statistics and Health Monitor. For example, it can not be ruled out that ultrafine particles from other sources – road transport, industry, shipping and mobile machines (excavators) – affect the conclusions, says RIVM researcher Nicole Janssen. RIVM used the anonymized data from approximately two million inhabitants in thirty municipalities around Schiphol.

Ultrafine particles are the number of very small particles in the air (less than 0.1 micrometer). It is released during combustion processes, including in cars and aircraft. Unlike soot and fine dust, ultrafine particles have almost no weight. It is therefore difficult to measure. Emissions from air traffic have only been looked at for about ten years. The first investigations took place at Los Angeles airport. Especially aircraft that take off – which accelerate at full throttle and consume a lot of petroleum – cause a lot of ultra-fine particulate emissions.

Ultrafine particles are so small that they can enter directly into the bloodstream through the alveoli. According to environmental organizations, ultrafine particles are the most harmful form of air pollution.

Nicole Janssen from the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) found indicative evidence that many years of exposure to ultrafine particles increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and health damage in pregnant women and fetuses. The closer you live to the airport, the more ultrafine particles you ingest each day. She found insufficient evidence for the development of other health effects, for example on lungs and nerves. However, the 2019 study already showed: If you suffer from asthma or other lung diseases, it certainly does not get better if you live close to Schiphol.

In October 2021, the Health Council also drew attention to the harmful effects of ultrafine particles. The Council concluded in the Council Risk of ultrafine particles in the open air that prolonged exposure increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. There is also an increased risk of lung disease.

Waiting is not an option, the advisory body believes. To reduce exposure to ultrafine particles, it is necessary to sharply reduce emissions from internal combustion engines, the Health Council stated. “In aviation, emissions can be reduced by, for example, fewer flight movements and the use of petroleum with a lower sulfur content.”

The combustion of low sulfur petroleum releases fewer ultrafine particles than with ordinary petroleum. However, the sulfur-free variant costs more. There is talk in The Hague and at Schiphol of offering low-sulfur fuel, but that has not happened yet. If only more expensive low-sulfur petroleum was available at Schiphol for departing flights, it could damage the airport’s competitive position. Planes then redirect to other airports for bunkering, Schiphol fears.

Also read: Schiphol employees worried about ultrafine particles and coronary risk

The research published by RIVM does not concern employees at Schiphol. At the end of 2021, the trade union FNV drew attention to the apron employees at the airport – who, among other things, load and unload suitcases, refuel planes and bring food on board. During their work, they are exposed to very high concentrations of harmful substances, including ultrafine particles. The Danish Working Environment Authority is investigating whether Schiphol is breaking the rules by exposing staff to excessive concentrations of harmful substances.

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