Much has been made recently of the studies currently underway in areas around Boston Logan and Santa Monica Airports, aimed at determining the health impacts of those airports on surrounding populations.  While the aim is noble, and the information to be gained useful in structuring individual living choices, the result will have little or no impact on the operation of those airports. 


The airport health studies are apparently aimed at determining the etiology of increased rates of diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, heart disease and emphysema within a 5-7 mile radius of the airports. Preliminary findings have determined increased rates of those and other ailments within those areas. So far, so good.

The problem with that approach, however, is two-fold. First, both airports are located within highly urbanized areas which give rise to multiple alternate sources of pollution such as freeways, and, in the case of East Boston, manufacturing and freight warehousing. It is unclear if the airport studies have screened out the effects of such intervening exogenous variables, as well as the impacts of other variables such as genetics, health care, eating habits, etc.

Second, even if their methodologies and conclusions are accurate, there is little to be accomplished with the result of the studies. There are no Federal laws or regulations that would mandate changes in the way airports operate because of the incidence of health problems disclosed by the studies.

A much more fruitful approach would be to devote the time and resources to an assessment of the airports’ “conformity” to their individual State Air Quality Implementation Plans (“SIP”). The Federal Clean Air Act prohibits any department, agency, or instrumentality of the Federal government from engaging in, supporting in any way or providing financial assistance for, licensing or permitting or approving any activity which does not conform to an “Implementation Plan.” 42 U.S.C. section 7506(c)(1). Therefore, if a methodologically sound study can establish that airport’s operations do not conform to the relevant SIP, the Clean Air Act unequivocally prohibits the FAA from further funding the airport. Loss of funding is a significant incentive to the mitigation of health and other impacts which are the fundamental concern of affected populations.

In short, the Boston and Santa Monica Airport health studies are aimed more at the emotions than at the solution. People living in close proximity to airports would be better served by studies like conformity analyses that provide them leverage in the struggle to reduce airport impacts.