"There’s a new fear of flying: You’re more likely to die from exposure to toxic pollutants in plane exhaust than in a plane crash, a new study suggests.
In recent years, airplane crashes have killed about a thousand people annually, whereas plane emissions kill about ten thousand people each year, researchers say.
"We found that unregulated emissions from [planes flying] above 3,000 feet [914 meters] were responsible for most of the deaths," said study leader Steven Barrett, an aeronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Airplane exhaust, like car exhaust, contains a variety of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.’
"Viewed from the ground, airplanes appear clean and efficient. They fly at fantastic speeds with no apparent effort, leaving behind only thin streams of puffy white clouds.
In reality, airplanes accomplish the miraculous feat of hurling hundreds of thousands of pounds of people, baggage, and aluminum thousands of miles at high speeds by consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels. In the process, airlines dump massive amounts of dangerous pollutants over our homes and into our atmosphere every day. This great but largely invisible harm will continue to grow at an accelerating rate in the years to come.
Airplanes have three major problems: they are inefficient, they are big, and they run on toxic fuels. A fully laden A380, according to its’ engine maker Rolls Royce, uses as much energy as 3,500 family cars, equivalent to six cars for each passenger. 1 Long haul flights produce on average twice as much emissions per mile traveled per passenger than cars and short haul flights produce three times as much.
Unlike cars, however, people do not use airplanes for a few minutes each day to travel just around the corner for groceries or into the office. People fly hundreds or thousands of miles on each flight and airplanes spend many hours each day aloft. A single round trip flight from New York to Europe or San Francisco produces two to three tons of carbon dioxide per person. 2 To put this in perspective, the average American generates 19 tons of carbon dioxide and the average European produces ten over an entire year. A few flights, in other words, can completely overwhelm any attempts to reduce your personal contribution to global warming.
Airplanes achieve such extraordinary levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions by burning large quantities of toxic jet fuel. This fuel produces, in addition to carbon dioxide, NOx, sulphates, and particulate matter, all of which amplify the impact of aviation on global warming. Airplanes emit all of these pollutants directly into the atmosphere, compounding the pollutants’ warming impact. Even those innocuous-looking contrails trap heat on the Earth’s surface. The combined effect of all of these pollutants multiplies the global warming impact of aviation, making aviation currently responsible for an estimated 5% of global climate pollution.
The burning of incredible quantities of toxic fuel has impacts that extend beyond the climate. As soon as airplanes leave the gate, they begin to produce phenomenal amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and cancer-causing toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde.3 This pollution travels miles downwind, contributing to asthma, lung and heart disease, and a large number of cancers.