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Heathrow Growth Would Kill More People Than New Hub, MIT Says

Heathrow Airport
A British Airways aircraft takes off from Heathrow airport. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Building a third runway at BAA Ltd.’s London Heathrow airport would lead to more early deaths from pollution than constructing a new airport in the Thames Estuary, U.S. researchers said.

Expanding Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, would lead to about 150 premature deaths from pollution per year in 2030, up from 50 today, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers said in a study on the school’s website. Replacing Heathrow with a new hub in the mouth of the Thames River would cause 50 annual deaths, according to the paper.

“Heathrow is embedded in the major population center of Greater London, and upwind of a significant portion of it,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, the Thames Hub would be downwind of London, such that much of the pollution from a Thames Hub would blow into the English Channel.”

The findings lend support to London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal to build a new hub, dubbed “Boris Island” by the U.K. press, in the Thames east of the capital. Johnson on Oct. 4 called Prime Minister David Cameron’s aviation policy “lamentable,” and said London is losing jobs as a result of “dither and delay” over a decision to expand airport capacity.

The study found that nationwide, 110 people die prematurely per year because of pollution from airports, 50 of them attributable to Heathrow. They projected that to increase to 250 in 2030, with 110 due to Heathrow, even without airport expansion. That’s because of higher utilization of airports, population growth, and aging citizens being more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.

Rising Toll

The MIT report, dated October 2012 and carried out with England’s University of Cambridge, summarizes papers that have been published already or will be published in the U.K. scientific journal Atmospheric Environment.

Adding a third runway to Heathrow would raise that airport’s toll by 40 to a total of 150 early deaths per year, while reductions in traffic at other London hubs would result in a nationwide increase of just 10 deaths to a total of 260, the study said.

Closing Heathrow and establishing a new hub in the Thames would cause the nationwide projection of 250 deaths to decline by a quarter, the researchers wrote. That would mean about 187 deaths, according to Bloomberg calculations. Just 50 of those would be attributable to the new airport, the researchers said.

Environmental campaign groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth oppose an expansion of Heathrow and the construction of a new airport because they say it will increase flights, raising air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Cameron’s Conservative Party made an election pledge in 2010 to block an additional runway at Heathrow, and the prime minister has commissioned an inquiry into airports that’s not scheduled to report until after the next election in 2015. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said on Oct. 8 the government is committed to expanding London’s airport capacity.

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