Are U.S. Airplane Fuel Emissions To Blame For Deaths In Asia?

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A new report shows that dangerous exhaust fumes released from planes flown over the U.S. and Europe are poisoning people half-way across the globe.

The study from MIT is connecting the dots between pollutants emitted from flights over the U.S. and Europe and deaths in countries like China and India due to high-speed winds that flow east, pushing toxic gases right into highly-populated Asian areas. Though aircraft emissions are regulated, guidelines only apply to low-altitude flights traveling at 3,000 feet.

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Previously, regulators thought that emissions made above 3,000 feet would be unloaded into a smoother part of the atmosphere, meaning fuel waste wouldn’t circulate back to the ground. But MIT’s research leaves this theory debunked – and we know now that 90% of all aircraft fuel is burned at normal cruise altitudes (about 35,000 feet). Even more disturbing is the finding that these pollutants contribute to 8,000 deaths a year globally. (Countries like India and China are especially affected because of the Northern Hemisphere’s eastward air currents, which sweep pollutants in to be inhaled by the population.)

According to MIT:

Analysis of these data revealed that aircraft pollution above North America and Europe — where air travel is heaviest — adversely impacts air quality in India and China. That is, even though the amount of fuel burned by aircraft over India and China accounts for only 10 percent of the estimated total amount of fuel burned by aircraft across the globe, the two countries incur nearly half — about 3,500 — of the annual deaths related to aircraft cruise emissions. The analysis also revealed that although every country in the Northern Hemisphere experienced some number of fatalities related to these emissions, almost none of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere had fatalities.

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Though MIT’s research is still incomplete, Fast Company is reporting the FAA is already funding its own study to address MIT’s findings. There’s no word on whether or not tighter aircraft emission regulations are in the near future.