High levels of airborne particles recorded at Montreal's Trudeau airport

Alarmed by McGill study, citizens group wants to fight air pollution at Trudeau Airport, along with noise

A study out of McGill University found that the Montreal Airport grounds have a particularly high number of airborne particles floating around — including nanoparticles of heavy metals that are harmful to human health.

The research was published last week in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution. The study, which ran from July to September 2017, recorded up to two million particles per cubic centimetre, more than all the measures taken so far at any other international airport, according to the abstract.

Parisa Ariya, a professor in the departments of chemistry and atmospheric and oceanic sciences of McGill who conducted the study, said the results mean more research is needed.

"It means that further studies should be performed in the future, and also very soon," Ariya said, "To make sure that the impacts are not very elevated regarding health."

The levels of nanoparticles detected at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport were also much higher than in downtown Montreal, or on the highway at rush hour.

Difficult to detect

The particles found were mainly nanoparticles, which are less than 100 nanometers in size (or 0.0001 metres).

These nanoparticles had been impossible to observe in the past, and even today, few researchers have the tools to measure them.

The McGill team was able to study the airport's air quality like never before, with state-of-the-art equipment, including a high-resolution scanning electron microscope.

Few other international airports have been subjected to such a high level of analysis, Ariya said. Of those, Montreal has the highest number of nanoparticles to date.

Ariya said this could be due to the high number of flights to and from the Trudeau airport compared with the other airports studied, the proximity of the airport to the city centre and the fact that Montreal is located on an island.

Health impacts

More than 30 chemical elements were detected in the airborne particles at Trudeau airport.

While some of these elements are "not dangerous at all," according to Ariya, others are considered toxic by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers found concentrations of zinc, nickel, iron and lead, as well as other heavy metals such as chromium, manganese and arsenic.

"Nanoparticles in the air are considered emerging contaminants because they are known to have health effects," she said.

Aéroports de Montreal (ADM), the organization that runs the airport, said its environment and sustainable development division would follow up on the results of the study with researchers over the coming weeks.

"This research is part of our desire to continue our development while minimizing our ecological footprint," spokesperson Marie-Claude Desgagnés said.