Improving the health impacts of airports [World Health Organization, Bulletin – Volume 96]

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 

When the Australian federal government approved plans to build a second international airport in Sydney two years ago, Professor Evelyne de Leeuw, director of the Centre for Health Equity Training, Research and Evaluation at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), joined the team, assessing the impact the project would have on people’s health.

The assessment highlighted the potential effects of air pollution and noise from aircraft operations, as well as the effects of associated urban development and ground transportation, including impact on health and wellbeing, in local communities.

Inspired by the Healthy Cities movement, launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 1980s, De Leeuw and her colleagues went on to develop a concept of how this traditionally unhealthy environment could be transformed to promote and protect health.

“Many cities that joined the Healthy Cities movement were moved to do something, because they knew they were not healthy and they had to change,” says de Leeuw.

“The same goes for airports. Airports are like cities, they are mini-hubs, so the same principles apply. But because airports move people around the world, they have far reaching effects on people’s health,” says de Leeuw, who with her colleagues set out their vision in a report entitled Healthy airports, that was released earlier this year.

“There’s nothing essentially healthy about an airport with all the noise, fumes, stress and overcrowding,” de Leeuw says.

Airport and aviation authorities are, however, starting to recognize that airports do not have to be unhealthy and unsustainable.

So far there has been no comprehensive or systematic effort to produce a model for the design of a healthy airport and its wider environmental and community footprint.

“It’s vital to integrate any airport infrastructure with the nearby city and community,” says Thiago Herick de Sa from the Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.

“Apart from being large trip generators – which have wide reaching environmental and health effects – airports are important waste generators, they are energy intensive and land consuming, factors that must be considered when refitting or planning airport infrastructure.”

Air pollution is one of the main challenges. It causes many diseases including respiratory conditions, heart disease and stroke. Air pollution affects people using the airport, including those living nearby, and is a major contributor to global warming and climate change.

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