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Estuary airport could be healthier than Heathrow

The Thames Estuary off the Isle of Grain Photo: ITV Meridian

From the Isle of Grain to the middle of the Thames Estuary there's no shortage of plans for an airport in this patch of Kent. But pollution could give those plans a boost.

"Air pollution's an invisible killer." says David Kidney, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. "It shortens so many lives that it's the equivalent of causing nearly thirty-thousand deaths a year in the UK."

Not all of that comes from airplanes of course, not by a long shot, but they are a factor, especially where the planes take off and land because that brings the pollution to ground level and because you gets lots of traffic going to and from airports.

Now a new report suggests the Thames Estuary would help to solve the human health problem that airport hubs generate. The report's author, Steven Barrett from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains:

"The winds in the south-east of England are south-westerly on the whole, so towards the north east and Heathrow is upwind of London so the pollution plume from Heathrow blows on average over London. If instead the airport is located in Thames Estuary much of the pollution blows over the English Channel so affecting fewer people."

The study analyses predicted data from now until 2030 and works out how many people could die early because of airport pollution. It concludes that an airport hub in the Estuary would cut the health impact across the UK by 25%, and locally by 60-70%, compared to a third runway at Heathrow. And it says that despite huge predicted growth in air travel, an Estuary hub could keep the impact on health to the same level as it was in 2005.

But whilst that's good news for London, it's less so for North Kent as the study's author admits:

"While I've described that on aggregate a Thames Estuary airport would reduce health impacts, clearly there'd be distributional factors so health in the region of the new airport would be impacted adversely and conversely would improve around Staines and the Heathrow area."

And that "adverse impact" in the Estuary could also choke off the wildlife, a point campaigners have made repeatedly such as Rolf Williams from the RSPB:-

"It is ignored continually that this area is internationally important. It is protected under European law so before you even want to consider doing any development out there you have to satisfy Europe that there is no better alternative."

The actual number of early deaths from airplane pollution is not that large although any is clearly too many. But experts say the impact of pollution on our health is much more than you might think. David Kidney again:

"There's no bigger issue for preventing deaths than air pollution other than the effects of smoking on people so it's a real big issue in everybody's life and we should be concerned about air pollution and transport emissions are the biggest cause of the pollution that affects people's health so we should all be concerned about where we put roads, where we put airports and where we put combinations of roads and airports."

To the houndreds of thousands of people who live just over the estuary in Essex, not to mention the quarter of a million or so in Medway, the idea that pollution here is somehow better than pollution in London, likely won't wash. But for those arguing against airport expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick say, this report will provide them extra ammunition for their arguments.