How Plane Fuel Kills 8,000 People a Year

jet plane

As if airlines needed any more reason to reduce fleet emissions, MIT reports this week that pollution from airplanes flying at cruise altitude (approximately 35,000 feet) contributes to 8,000 deaths globally each year.

Current emissions regulations only target planes flying up to 3,000 feet. In the past, regulators assumed that emissions above the 3,000 foot mark would be dumped into a part of the atmosphere with smooth air that couldn't send pollutants drifting toward the ground (the air is more turbulent at lower altitudes). But MIT has found that that's not true--and unfortunately for those of us on the ground, 90% of aircraft fuel is burned at cruise altitudes.

MIT explains:

Analysis of these data revealed that aircraft pollution above North America and Europe — where air travel is heaviest — adversely impacts air quality in India and China. That is, even though the amount of fuel burned by aircraft over India and China accounts for only 10 percent of the estimated total amount of fuel burned by aircraft across the globe, the two countries incur nearly half — about 3,500 — of the annual deaths related to aircraft cruise emissions. The analysis also revealed that although every country in the Northern Hemisphere experienced some number of fatalities related to these emissions, almost none of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere had fatalities.

India and China are hit especially hard because pollutants from planes in the Northern Hemisphere flow eastward. Heavy farming in the two countries also leads to high concentrations of atmospheric ammonia, which reacts with oxidized NOx and SOx from airplanes to create particulate matter that people on the ground inhale.

Don't expect airlines to take immediate action. MIT is still conducting research on the topic, and the FAA is funding research of its own to address holes in MIT's study (i.e. how accurately the model reflects airplanes moving vertically from high to low altitudes). But instead of spending so much energy researching the safety of NOx and SOx emissions, perhaps everyone involved should spend more time researching low-emissions biofuels for future flights.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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14 Comments

  • Packet Guy

    @andrea: "So now we know air travel in the west deposits pollution in the east. Nice exchange, since is well known that pollution from China is carried across the Pacific Ocean and comes down through the hydrologic cycle in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver and even the thought-to-be-pristine forests of British Columbia."

    No, we don't "know" air travel in the west deposits pollution in the east. This study reports a LINK between two poorly-understood phenomenon: airliner emissions and increased mortality. In science, a link is simply a weak statistical correlation that does not establish a cause-effect relationship. Once a link is found, then hypothetical mechanisms must be posited and experiments designed to test those hypothesis. When a convincing number of experiments support all the hypotheses, then we finally "know" something.

    This study features some predictions about _possible_ outcomes if the computer model is accurate, which is completely unproven, since no empirical emissions transport experiments have been conducted. It's too soon to even cause these emissions "pollutants", since by definition a pollutant must be harmful. For instance, Space Shuttle emissions in Earth orbit are not pollutants, since they cause no measurable harm.

    The purpose of studies such as this one is to provide a structural framework for further research, not to provide a basis for causal inference, and most definitely not a forecast of any kind. A link is just a clue, it's not a conclusion.

  • Andrea Larson

    I’ve been waiting for assessments and rigorous analysis of air travel pollution. If this was in fact a solid analysis it gives us a glimpse of what new research unearths when we try to quantify the influence of waste streams (in this case jet fuel combustion fumes that are invisible and therefore somehow more insidiously disturbing). So now we know air travel in the west deposits pollution in the east. Nice exchange, since is well known that pollution from China is carried across the Pacific Ocean and comes down through the hydrologic cycle in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver and even the thought-to-be-pristine forests of British Columbia. Do we need any more convincing that solutions must invented and that collaboration is essential? I think not.

  • William Hale

    The way the paper was written, you would expect that the volcanic eruption in Iceland would have caused the deaths of everybody in Europe and the Middle East.

  • Packet Guy

    And I would like you to either defend the unrelated airport video or remove it. It's an insult to your readers to just leave it there.

  • Packet Guy

    Ariel,

    Your article's title is still a complete fabrication: the study doesn't demonstrate that aircraft fuel kills anyone, and doesn't claim to. The study only posits a projection that a long chain of events based on an unsupported computer model might contribute to deaths.

    Your out of context quote on the "3,500" number is off base because you failed to include the immediately preceding qualifier from MIT:

    "He then used data related to population density and risk of disease in different parts of the world to determine how the change in particulate matter over certain regions MIGHT affect people on the ground..."

    The investigator used data unrelated to his study to propose a "just so" story that is a very uncertain supposition, and in fact the PI goes to some lengths to quantify the uncertainties, which when taken in total are huge. In fact, the 3,500 number derives largely from the high population densities of China and India, which the study admits, not from any demonstrated cause-and-effect relationship or epidemiological data.

    MIT reported the study accurately. You have not.

    If you're going to report on science, I recommend you learn the scientific method, learn how to properly critique institutional reports of their researcher's results, and to at least read the study in question, a step you seem to have skipped over. An excellent starting point for the path to competent science journalism is Robert L. Park's "Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud."

    And if you think I'm too harsh, consider that you're the one who chose to hold herself out as a science journalist and then proceed to wildly misrepresent a scientist's report.

  • Scott Rainey

    Agree with "Packet Guy" and Chris Reich, adding only "Sheesh!".

    There was no methodology cited pointed by which such deaths were calculated. I suspect that it is because the author from the well regarded MIT is probably a freshman, who made it all up out of somewhere near a back pocket.

    I would suggest firing whichever junior under-assistant editor allowed this item to be put on line, but that's like screaming into the wind.

    I like FC, but this type of political correctness crap is decidedly limiting your success.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    @Chris Could you point out where, exactly, sensationalism is used here?

  • Chris Reich

    Ariel Schwartz uses sensationalism in nearly every article I've read by her. Over doing a point more often alienates people from accepting that point rather than winning over new believers.

    Fear mongering is the main reason it's so hard to convince people of the reality of global climate change and man's role therein.

    No doubt all pollution contributes to death in some way. By definition, that's what' pollution' is: "the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment: air pollution." Harmful being the operative word.

    That said, the case could be made that Fast Company contributes to some number of deaths by producing pollutants as a by-product of their print magazine and the power consumed, much of it coal generated power, from production to consumption of their online footprint.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Packet Guy

    Oh, and what does the "Airport Beach Jet Blast" video have to do with this story? Nothing, that's what. Just another Fast Company confabulation.

  • Packet Guy

    How Fast Company plays fast and loose with the "facts": The study never says plane fuel kills 8000 people a year. Thats a bald-faced lie by Fast Company. Also, the study never says India and China are "hit especially hard". Lie number two. What the study said is that a computer model predicted that gasses from airliner exhaust _contributes to_ 8000 deaths per year. That's a conclusion based on nothing more than an unproven computer model, one having zero correlation with any measured atmospheric data from India or China, where the model _presumes_ unexpectedly high concentrations of ag-generated ammonia combine with aircraft NOx and SOx to form fine particulates that are "linked to" some lung conditions and an unfounded presumption of early death.

    Here's the result of my study: What Ariel Schwartz knows about science would fail to fill the inner shell of a Helium atom.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Thanks for your comment. I revised my original statement to say that emission only contribute to deaths (don't cause them directly), but my second statement is true -- check out the study: "That is, even though the amount of fuel burned by aircraft over India and China accounts for only 10 percent of the estimated total amount of fuel burned by aircraft across the globe, the two countries incur nearly half — about 3,500 — of the annual deaths related to aircraft cruise emissions." Fair enough if you take issue with the study, but don't say that I misreported MIT's findings -- *that's* a "bald-faced lie".

  • Nicholas Crawford

    Just a quick reminder that your headline is still factually incorrect.