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Dangerous levels of toxic gas detected at most major airports

CSP press release published on 1 June 2011

CSP study shows some exceed EU limits by up to 75 per cent

Levels of a toxic atmospheric pollutant exceed EU limits at most airports in England, according to a new report published today by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP).

Over two thirds (16 out of 23) of the airports included in the CSP’s study recorded dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide – a noxious gas that irritates the airways of the lungs and causes breathing difficulties. The EU says nitrogen dioxide levels need to stay below 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air (mcg/m3) to be safe, but airports in Newcastle, Birmingham and London (Heathrow and Gatwick) exceed this recommendation by up to 75 per cent.

Readings at airports in Manchester, Liverpool, Blackpool, Sheffield, Humberside, London (City), Southampton, Exeter and Gloucester are up to 50 per cent higher than the EU target.

Respiratory physiotherapists say the consequences of being exposed to the gas can be especially severe among people with existing lung conditions, like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. CSP spokesperson, Professor Grahame Pope, says:

'The effects of airport emissions on air quality and public health are of serious concern to physiotherapists. It’s not just nitrogen dioxide polluting the environment around airports; our study reveals high ozone (see note 4) concentrations at some sites too. There’s no doubt that aircraft contribute to the problem, but it should be noted that cars, buses and taxis ferrying passengers to and from these sites are dominant sources of pollution. With cheap flights making air travel more affordable, several airports want to expand capacity. We would urge the government to consider ways of balancing passenger convenience with improving public health when looking at these proposals.'

Table 1 shows latest readings for levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air surrounding airports (SEE BELOW). Scores over 4 indicate the airport’s nitrogen dioxide levels exceed the EU limit of 40µg/m3. For more info on data source, see note 2.

Table 2 explains the scoring system used in Table 1 and highlights how much nitrogen dioxide is needed to arrive at a score between 1 and 10. An airport recording a score of 7, for example, has levels of nitrogen dioxide between 60-70 (µg/m3).

Data source: Ambient Air Quality: Scores of Nitrogen Dioxide concentrations at background and roadside locations, 2003 (January-December).

Table 1

Airport roadside NO2 score
Newcastle International Airport  7
Birmingham International Airport  7
London Heathrow Airport  7
London Gatwick Airport  7
Manchester Airport  6
Liverpool Airport  6
Blackpool Airport 6
Sheffield City Airport  6
Humberside International Airport 
London City Airport 
Southampton International Airport 
Exeter Airport 
Gloucestershire Airport 
Teesside International Airport  5
Norwich Airport  5
Plymouth City Airport  5
Leeds Bradford International Airport  4
London Luton Airport 
Cambridge Airport  4
Ipswich Airport  4
London Biggin Hill Airport  4
Shoreham Airport  4
Isle of Wight (Sandown) Airport  3


Table 2

Score % of EU limit value Nitrogen Dioxide concentration (µg/m3)
0-25  0-10
2 25-50  10-20
3 50-75  20-30
4 75-100  30-40
5 100-125  40-50
6 125-150 50-60
7 150-175  60-70
8 175-200  70-80
9 200-225  80-90
10 225-250  90-100



Notes to editors

  1. For more information please call the CSP press office on 020 7306 6616/6628/6163 or mobiles 07786 332 197, 07795 564 240, 07900 160 349
  2. Data Source - Nitrogen Dioxide title: Ambient Air Quality: Scores of Nitrogen Dioxide concentrations at background and roadside locations, 2003 (January-December). The geography used is the middle layer super output areas, which have been mapped to the locations of airports.   The data supplier is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the data was taken from National Statistics.   The dataset used provides scores of annual mean nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration for 2003 at background and roadside locations in the UK. The data are collected by Netcen on behalf of Defra and the Devolved Administrations. The scores in this dataset are calculated by comparing annual mean nitrogen dioxide concentrations for 2003 in MSOAs with the EU Limit Value of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) which comes into force in 2010. The scores reported in this dataset are calculated from a modelled annual mean concentration (an average over the whole year) in micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is an oxide of nitrogen, and is associated with adverse effects upon human health. NO2 may have both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) effects on health, particularly in people with asthma. There is evidence to show that long-term exposure to NO2 may affect lung function and that exposure to NO2 enhances the response to allergens in sensitized individuals.
  3. NO2 levels were not available for the following airports: East Midlands International, London Southend, Stansted, Manston, Bristol International, Land's End, Newquay (Cornwall), St. Mary's, Bournemouth International, Cardiff International
  4. Of 33 airports in England and Wales, all but two (Sheffield City and London Heathrow) have ozone levels which exceed the Air Quality Strategy’s objective of having no greater than 10 days with running 8-hour mean ozone concentrations greater than 100 µg/m3. Use the Word download link below to view the ozone results.
  5. Respiratory physios treat a range of conditions, including those that come under the umbrella term of ‘Obstructive Airways Disease’ such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Asthma and Bronchiectasis. To find out more about the conditions respiratory physios treat, the effects pollution can have on their patients and the type of intervention provided, please call the CSP press office on the numbers below to set up an interview with an ACPRC member.
  6. The GB union movement signed up to tackling poor air quality at the TUC’s 2005 annual congress.
  7. The CSP is the professional, educational and trade union body for the country’s 47,000 chartered physiotherapists, physiotherapy students and assistants.


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