Aircraft Fuel Emissions to Kill 8,000 People This Year

The Airbus A380, flaps extended and landing gear down, prepares to land at the <a href="">Farnborough International Airshow</a>.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fed up with getting nickel-and-dimed to death each time you fly a commercial airliner? Think of the bright side: At least - hopefully - you won't number among the estimated 8,000 people who actually will die this year because of pollution emitted by commercial flights.

The Airbus A380
Stephen Shankland/CNET

In a report published this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, MIT researchers argue that airplanes flying at cruise altitude (or approximately 35,000 feet,) contribute to 8,000 premature deaths around the world each year. The researchers say that nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides emitted by aircraft at that level combine with other gases in the atmosphere to create noxious particulate matter. Earlier studies of the effects of aircraft pollution on air quality have focused on landing and takeoff emissions as most airline fuel gets burned at high altitudes.

Lead author Steven Barrett told MIT's news service that "anything above that [altitude] really hasn't been regulated, and the goal of this research was to determine whether that was really justified."

But the risk isn't necessarily greatest over the northern hemisphere, where the heaviest concentration of commercial aviation flights take place. Taken eastward by high-speed winds, the emissions spread to other continents where they extract a proportionately heavier toll in China and India, according to the study.

"...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."
Unfortunately for residents in those two regions, they already breathe in high concentrations of ammonia due to the preponderance of farming in those countries. People living in China and India are especially at risk because particulates get produced as the ammonia in the atmosphere mixes (and reacts) with oxidized nitrogen and sulphur.

The study concludes by recommending that cruise emissions be "explicitly considered" by global regulators whose job it is to oversee aviation engines and fuels. So far, the reaction to the report from the industry has been unenthusiastic. Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association which represents 230 airlines, told MIT that aviation constituted "a small part of a big problem," when compared to emissions produced by other forms of transportation.