Air Quality


The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1,000,000 people die prematurely each year due to (outdoor) air pollution. This is based on epidemiological evidence, which shows a statistically significant association between long-term fine particulate matter (PM) exposure and increased risk of early death due to cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer. Ozone is also an important pollutant in terms of its health impacts.

Both ozone and PM are attributable to combustion emissions from aviation and other sectors. Emissions have an impact at multiple scales – from the locality of the emissions source where local spikes in pollution occur though to changes in global air quality due to intercontinental pollution. Understanding the causes, magnitude and mechanisms of air quality degradation at all scales is important for developing approaches to reduce the adverse health impacts of aviation and other sectors.

Research in the lab yielded the surprising finding that aircraft cruise emissions cause more adverse health impacts than landing and takeoff emissions.

Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment air quality research

The Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment works to advance knowledge of the air quality impacts of aviation, recently producing the first estimate of the global health burden associated with aircraft emissions. This involves developing and applying advanced atmospheric models, spanning scales from ~1 km to assess local air quality at airports to ~10,000 km to understand the intercontinental transport of aircraft cruise emissions.

Many of the models used in investigating the air quality impacts of aviation and other sectors are too computationally intensive to be practical in policy or design settings – where an impact can be made. The lab develops rapid air quality assessment tools that can be used in policy or design analyses to quantify the public health impacts of regulatory or design decisions. Techniques being applied include inverse modeling, statistical parameterizations, and the development of mathematical approximations that make air quality modeling significantly faster.

Ultimately our aim is to reduce the air quality impacts of aviation. We study potential ways of doing this, including alternative fuels – ultra-low sulfur jet and biofuels – and providing realtime information about the air quality impacts of operational decisions.

The Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment also works to understand the air quality and public health impacts of sectors other than aviation. This is important so that aviation’s impacts are viewed in their proper context, and as there are many examples where environmental improvements can be more cost-effectively achieved by mitigation measures in other sectors.

Outcomes and applications

The lab’s objective is to provide decision-makers with new knowledge about how aviation and other sectors impact air quality to incorporate into the development of environmental and aviation policies. Rapid air quality assessment tools are also being developed at the lab, which have and are being used in national and international policy deliberations on aircraft emissions that have resulted in changes to emissions regulations.

Selected archival publications on ‘Air Quality’ can be found in the LAE’s Archival Publications Section.