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Santa Monica Airport a major pollution source

November 19, 2009|Dan Weikel

UCLA scientists have found that people who live and work near Santa Monica Airport are exposed to high levels of air pollution -- a significant health concern that has been largely associated with major commercial airports such as LAX.

The study, released Wednesday, shows that ultrafine particle emissions were 10 times higher than normal about 300 feet downwind of the runway's east end, where takeoffs generally start. The levels were 2.5 times higher than normal at a distance of about 2,000 feet.

A tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, ultrafine particles can travel deep into the lungs, penetrate tissue and travel to the brain. Studies show that elevated exposure to the particles presents a health risk for children, older adults, and people with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Although the research focused on Santa Monica, the study may have broader implications for regional and municipal airports that serve private planes and corporate jets. Many such airfields in Southern California are in densely populated areas.

"Our research shows the potential impacts of smaller airports on residential areas and that we ought to have more of a buffer around airports," said UCLA professor Suzanne E. Paulson, an atmospheric chemist who worked on the study. "This is not just happening at Santa Monica."

The Santa Monica Airport sits on a plateau surrounded by businesses and homes, some less than 300 feet from the runway. For years, nearby residents and business owners have complained about aircraft emissions and the growing use of corporate jets.

"It's just horrible," said Virginia Ernst, who lives about 300 feet from the runway's east end. "They line the planes up and the fumes just invade your home. Sometimes you have to leave because it is so bad."

The study -- one of only a handful to explore airborne pollutants near general aviation airports was released Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published by the American Chemical Society.

UCLA's findings are consistent with a study yet to be published by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which found that levels of ultrafine particles were significantly elevated near the Santa Monica runway.

Officials for the Federal Aviation Administration said that air traffic control at Santa Monica has taken several steps to limit emissions from taxiing and departing aircraft. They include positioning planes so their exhaust is directed away from neighborhoods and instructing pilots not to start their engines until five or 10 minutes before they are cleared for takeoff.

But Martin Rubin, a community activist involved in airport issues, disputes the effectiveness of those procedures. Aircraft are still idling for up to 30 minutes, he said, and wind can send emissions into neighborhoods despite a plane's position on the runway.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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