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AReCO in the News

Air quality nags airport expansion

    By Sean Holstege, Oakland Tribune STAFF WRITER

October 20, 2003 - 7:36:09 AM PST

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Court-ordered report says billion-dollar growth plan meets standards but health concerns still exist

Jet noise can be dampened, endangered burrowing owls protected and the risk of cancer and other health threats avoided when Oakland International Airport expands next year.

That was the conclusion of a twice-revised, court-ordered environmental study released by the airport this month and is under public review until Nov. 12.

The airport expects to negotiate by Christmas a contract to start a $1.5 billion expansion, allowing Oakland to serve 22 million passengers a year in 2010, up from 12 million today, and move 50 percent more air freight.

The environmental study also found that nothing can be done to avoid the harm caused by increased emissions of acrolein, one of dozens of toxins that spew from jetliner exhausts.

Only highly sensitive people living near the airport "might experience mild eye watering," from being exposed to acrolein levels, which would be as high as four times the symptom-causing level, the airport study found.

The nearest homes are 740 feet from the airport. Children at the Kindercare Learning Center and the Alameda Elementary Chinese Christian School on Bay Farm Island would be exposed to acrolein levels at five times the threshold for symptoms.

Acrolein forms from burning everything from wood and cigarettes to jet fuel. Breathing large amounts can be fatal, while lower long-term exposure could damage lung tissue and create breathing difficulties, although little is understood about how.

"There is very little information about how exposure to acrolein affects people's health," concluded the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which added, "We do not know if acrolein causes reproductive effects or birth defects in people or animals."

Oakland Airport researchers point out that the substance is not regulated, so the significant environmental impact is unavoidable.

All air pollution from aircraft is exempt from environmental laws. It goes unregulated and largely unmeasured.

Across the country, people living near airports have been lining up to oppose new runways or terminals. Many point to local health studies which indicate alarming increases in serious illnesses around big airfields.

A 1997 survey of hospital records by the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health showed that neighbors of SeaTac Airport had 36 percent more cancer deaths, 50 percent higher rates of infant mortality and 57 percent more asthma cases than people living in the Seattle region.

A Chicago area study showed that people living near O'Hare International suffered from cancer 70 percent more often than people throughout the Windy City.

Every year commercial jets at O'Hare, the nation's second busiest airport, released 25 tons of benzene and 140 tons of formaldehyde into the air, according to a 1993 U.S. EPA study. State environmental officials concluded that the airport dumped nearly 2,700 tons a year of greenhouse gases. Jack Saporito, president of US-Citizens Aviation Watch, a national group opposing airport expansions, told the government that the volume of smog-forming gases from each takeoff of a Boeing 747 was equivalent to the pollution from running 2.4 million lawnmowers 20 minutes.

And in 1993, the U.S. EPA found that 11 percent of the cancer cases within 16 square miles surrounding Chicago's Midway Airport were attributable to airport emissions.

But the science is cloudy. More recent studies of SeaTac and O'Hare were inconclusive and could not establish any direct links between jetliner operations and human illness.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found last year that emissions of some of the most poisonous substances, such as benzene, formaldehyde and xylene, at O'Hare and around Chicago were no different than at other major U.S. cities.

In 2000, Washington State health officials found no compelling reason to monitor many airport air pollutants. Researchers noted that neighborhoods with high rates of illness also had more smokers, more poverty and less access to quality health care.

"We have not been able to establish a probable causal relationship between the health of residents living near SeaTac Airport and air pollution," researchers reported, but also noted, "Because of the lack of information on specific air pollutants, we cannot rule out the possibility."

Oakland International reached roughly the same conclusion in what its environmental officials described as a groundbreaking study into the airborne movement of pollution. Few airports have measured air in the surrounding community.

Researchers pointed out that all kinds of factors affect how jet exhaust could, or could not, make people sick. They include: how a toxin enters the body, how much is ingested, how often, for how long and how much is enough to make people ill. Also at issue is how pollution gets from a jet to the person, if the same pollution comes from other sources or if the kinds of diseases recorded near SeaTac could be caused by something unrelated to airports or pollution.

The are very few answers.

It's a growing national issue, because seven Americans in 10 live within 20 miles of a major airport, and the government has enacted a law to help expand 2,000 airports. At the same time, newer models of popular aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, emit 40 percent more greenhouse gases during takeoffs and landings and are less fuel efficient, according to a report this year by Congress' investigators at the General Accounting Office.

California is one of only three states that require airports to reduce smog by such as things as cleaning up the fleet of ground vehicles. Oakland International and San Jose International Airport were two of five airports in the country that took such measures.

But the GAO concluded that "emissions have not been a major obstacle" to getting airport expansions cleared. The GAO noted that some European countries charge extra landing fees pegged to pollution, but ended up punting on the subject: "No conclusive studies on the effectiveness" of the programs "have been completed."

"The Federal Aviation Administration has not developed a long-term strategic framework to deal with these challenges," the GAO concluded, adding the FAA "lacks a thorough study on the extent of the impact of aviation emissions on local air quality."

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