New study measuring air quality around Sea-Tac Airport

SEA-TAC, Wash. — When planes come and go from Sea-Tac Airport, what do they do to the air people breathe below?

"The soot we see deposited on the sidewalks and patios and cars, what is that?" asked Steve Edmiston, who grew up near the airport and now lives in Des Moines.

His neighbors, already concerned about noise from growing aircraft traffic, are now asking about pollution.

"The concern in the community is, 'Is this affecting our immune systems, is it hitting our bone marrow, is it affecting our respiratory systems, is it potentially carcinogenic?'" Edmiston asked.

University of Washington research scientist Elena Austin is studying the air quality around Sea-Tac.

"There does seem to be a footprint around Sea-Tac that we can associate with emissions from aircraft that are landing and taking off," Austin said of the preliminary findings.

Her work is focused on 'ultrafine particles' from jet engines.

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​One or two thousand could fit in a space the width of a human hair.

Austin and her colleagues repeatedly drove a car with a monitoring device on routes around Sea-Tac.

They're analyzing what they measured and will report results this summer.

Congressman Adam Smith this week re-introduced the "Protecting Airport Communities from Particle Emissions Act."

"There are enough studies to know that fine particulate matter is being dropped from the burning fuel onto these communities," Smith said. "Is it having a health impact? There's never been a comprehensive study to get an answer to that question, so the bill would call for that sort of study."

Smith wants research near several major airports, including Sea-Tac.

An early study in Los Angeles had people with asthma spend time near jet emissions and near car emissions.

"There's some evidence of inflammation from the aircraft particles," Austin said.

The current UW study is focused on determining the air quality, not health impacts.

Airport neighbor Steve Edmiston, who's involved with Quiet Skies groups, calls it "essential" to know the health impact of plane emissions.

He already has a hunch about what more studies will find.

"We're never going to see a particulate study that says, you know, as it turns out, burnt jet fuel and emissions from airplanes is good for you; that's never going to happen," Edmiston said. “It's just going to be, 'How bad is it going to be?'"

The Port of Seattle says it is supportive of the research, and has contributed money to the UW study.