Sea-Tac Airport is one of the fastest growing airports in the nation with 3.4 million more passengers last year than in 2015. With the highest total annual number of arrivals and departures in the state, it is a vital economic driver in South King County. But are these benefits taking a toll on the well-being of those living in the area?

Reps. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) and Mike Pellicciotti (D-Federal Way) want to know to what extent the volume of air traffic at the airport is affecting communities in their districts, so they secured money in the Operating Budget to fund a UW study and find out.

“This is a critical first step in a full impact study to determine the effects the airport activity has on our communities,” said Orwall, whose House Bill 1171, called for a study of the environmental impacts associated with aircraft traffic, including ultrafine particulate matter air pollution. “I am relieved that we managed to get these funds because it’s only through studies of this nature that we can fully understand the health impacts and learn how to mitigate their effects.”

“The full extent of airplane traffic effects, including noise and vibration, have not been fully examined in all of South King County,” said Pellicciotti, who had sought funding in the Capital Budget for a study to determine noise, vibration, and air quality issues, including the ultrafine particulate matter, in and around his district. “This is an important first step to independently slow the effect on our community.”

Orwall’s bill never made it to the House floor for a vote, and the Capital Budget was not moving and has yet to pass the legislature, so the two members from neighboring districts worked on finding a different path. They succeeded at securing $250,000 in the Operating Budget for the University of Washington to complete a study on the air quality implications of air traffic at SeaTac International Airport.

The UW School of Public Health will:

  • Determine and map the extent of impacts in the area surrounding the airport.
  • Assess the concentrations of ultrafine particulate matter in areas surrounding and directly affected by air traffic generated by the airport.
  • Identify the footprint of aircraft exhaust through particle number monitoring.
  • Carry out a future study of the health effects once the extent of exposure is better known.

The university will coordinate with local governments to share results and collect feedback from community members, and will report study findings and recommendations to the legislature by December 1, 2019.

Sea-Tac air traffic not only impacts communities surrounding the airport, it has a pronounced regional effect. For example, in Beacon Hill, which is higher in elevation, residents are much closer to overhead aircraft traffic, and it is the neighborhood with the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rate and adult deaths due to chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Dr. Roseanne Lorenzana, co-Chair of Community Health Advocates Collaboration Against Aircraft Emissions & Noise, and resident homeowner of Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, said that preliminary studies done elsewhere suggest exposure to ultrafine particulates from aircraft emissions can worsen asthma symptoms.

“This study will provide important information about the degree of our exposure to help us identify protective measures for our children and elderly. We are grateful to Rep. Tina Orwall as well as co-sponsor Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos for their diligent work in creating the opportunity to conduct this work,” Lorenzana said.


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