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Airplane Exhaust: Harmful Inside and Out by CityTech blogger Viki Bailey

Studies say that any type of toxic pollutant kills thousands. We know that airplane crashes kill people but what about airplane releases of exhaust? Emissions from planes flying above 3,000 feet can have as harmful exhaust as it does landing. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that jet engine exhaust endangers public health by contributing to climate change, and that large commercial jets account for 11% of all emissions from the global transportation sector. Aircraft emissions are expected to grow by 50% by 2050 as more and more people travel by air. Under the Clean Air Act the EPA has worked on imposing limits on aircraft emissions. Jet engine exhaust throws off greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, warming the atmosphere and trapping heat from the sun, which drives climate change. Those toxic exhaust emissions also threaten our health. Steven Barrett, an aeronautical engineer of the Cambridge Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says airplane exhaust contains sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides just like automobiles. Researchers have theorized that airplane pollutants can change a person’s DNA in as little as three days. Particulate matter may include tiny bits of dust, metal, or soot in the air which can lodge deep in the human lungs. Many of these particles of pollution are tiny, maybe about a hundred millionths of an inches wide, but can affect human health and enter the bloodstream. There are about 8,000 deaths a year from airplane pollution. The main cause of air pollutant deaths is cardiovascular, namely lung cancer and respiratory diseases. No one even considers the toxic pollutants airplanes release. How do airplanes pollutants affect human health? The plane flies at cruising altitude, then wind whisks the pollutants from the sky to the Earth’s ground level. Airplane emissions cause about 40 deaths each year which is information I don’t think frequent flyers know about. The air pollutants should not just be blamed on automobile and factories. Airplanes are also a part of the list of noxious releases into the air. Quoted from Mr. Barrett:  “Regulators need to explicitly consider the impact of cruise emissions on human health.” These findings may someday cause the industry to rebuild airplanes to diminish the contaminants that are released due to flying.


But scientists and engineers are working towards a 10% cut in emissions by 2022; British budget airline easyJet has just announced that it could be flying electric passenger jets on short-haul routes within a decade by using more fuel-efficient jets, such as the new Airbus A320neo.

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4 Responses

  1. You bring up some interesting and important points about airplane emissions. News articles and publications seem to have been focusing more on airplanes’ emissions’ effects on the climate than on people, but it is critical to understand and mitigate both types of effects. One of the most effective ways to reduce airplane emissions would be to simply fly fewer planes; if we were to fly less, then fewer planes would have to fly. However, in an increasingly globalizing world in which travel over large distances is an integral part of many jobs and a goal of many people who want to experience different parts of the world, how are we going to encourage people to travel less without drastically changing these jobs or travel dreams? Is there a more sustainable way of traveling oceans in a reasonable amount of time?

  2. With the increase in the population and its needs, we humans are always in search of bettering our needs. We are always in a rush and do whatever is necessary to make it happen and we forget about our surroundings and how our actions can effect our future. So we need to take some initiative now before its gets too late. Our globe (Earth) is surrounded by different layers in the atmosphere that protect us from any danger. One of the layers is known as the stratosphere. It is a layer in the atmosphere where the ozone is found that protects us from the harmful radiation which is emitted from the sun. Most ozone (about 90%) resides in a layer that begins between 6 and 10 miles (10 and 17 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface and extends up to about 30 miles (50 kilometers). According to Juan Cisneros, a researcher from the Spanish Antarctic weather station, if the plans for a successor to the Concorde go ahead, there will be a fleet of 200 or more such craft flying into the stratosphere regularly. (Subsonic aircraft fly below the stratosphere, which lies about 15 to 50 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.) The exhausts from these aircraft will produce water vapor and the hydroxyl radical (OH) – both of which contribute to the greenhouse effect – as well as the oxides of nitrogen that destroy ozone with is not a good sign.

  3. There are some very good points made in this post. I did not know airplane emissions cause about 40 deaths each year and that airplane exhaust was really this bad for the environment and human life. There are 5 technologies that could potentially help reduce and possibly end airplane emissions. One way is that fuel can be made from cooking oil, sugar cane, and biomass. Even though this may cost more than conventional jet fuel, some biofuels emit less pollution. In a new study, researchers found a way to convert ketones from sugarcane into heavier compounds that could potentially be used as aviation fuel. They said this fuel could cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 80 percent compared with traditional jet fuel. Alaska Airlines flew 75 commercial flights using a biofuel from cooking oil in 2011 and aims to use a biofuel blend on all flights from at least one airport by 2020. The second way is that engines should feature lighter materials. Aircraft manufacturers are using more fuel-efficient engines in new commercial jets. Boeing has begun to make the 737 MAX that use CFM International’s new LEAP 1-B engine which has a light-weight carbon fiber fan and is up to 15 percent more fuel efficient than current models. The third way is to have newer shapes and smaller vertical tail. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring whether a wider, double fuselage can improve fuel efficiency. They are trying to incorporate engines into the fuselage so the wings could be made of thinner, lighter materials. The ability to reduce the size of the vertical tail would reduce weight and drag and decrease fuel consumption and emissions. The fourth way is to use non stick coatings that could repel bug guts. Other fuel savings could result from non-stick coatings designed to slough insect residue off jet wings. Test flights by Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757 found a coating that reduced the number of bugs and residue by 40 percent compared with a control surface. When a bug hits and its body ruptures the blood starts undergoing some chemical changes to make it stickier. When bugs accumulate on the wings they cause drag. The fifth way is to 3D print plane parts which will make them lighter and cut fuel use. The main parts of a plane will most likely not be printed but smaller parts such as brackets, hinges, and buckles can be printed. This could reduce the weight of an aircraft by 4% to 7% and fuel consumption would be cut up to 6.4%. However, for this to happen, 3D printing technology needs to be improved.

    1. Hi Dominick.
      this is a wonderfully informative comment. thanks for sharing your in-depth knowledge with us, and presenting some of the many innovations being taken today by the air technology industry. Would love to hear more, so keep the info coming.
      thanks again

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