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How harmful is the fluid applied on aircraft to the environment? Is there any way to collect this waste fluid to minimize this, if in fact it is harmful?

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The main component of deicing fluid is either Ethylene Glycol (EG, toxic) or Propylene Glycol (PG, non-toxic) (source) and depending on the category applied different amounts are used annually.

There have been studies of the environmental impact of deicing fluid, which basically states:

  • In water, EG is not persistent and biodegrades aerobically and anerobically.
  • In air, EG is not readily volatile and its atmospheric half-life is approximately 1 day
  • In soil EG is also not persistent and biodegrades anerobically in about 1 day
  • EG is disposed of and treated at standard wastewater plants

(I think the above comments also apply to PG, but somebody will have to confirm that since I can't find anything that mentions it).

PG is non-toxic and is used in quite a few products that you use every day, from pharmaceuticals to food additives and moisturizers. I can't confirm but one of the linked articles says that most of the DI fluid used in the US is PG based, which I would believe, but can't source.

And from the article quoting an EPA Report 821-R-00-0016, January 2000, Revised August 2000,

Although EPA does not use such a system, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Classification System for Acute Exposures defines ‘relatively harmless’ as any chemical with an LC50 above 1,000 mg/L. The test results … indicate that ethylene glycol and propylene glycol may be classified as ‘relatively harmless,’as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There is also one manufacturer using 1,3-propanediol which is a by-product of corn fermentation and should be relatively minor as far as environmental impact.

There is also considerable movement in airports to "go green" and recover used deicing fluid, especially considering that a larger aircraft can take more than 1000 gallons of diluted deicing solution at the rate of up to $12/gallon, quite a bit of which runs off the aircraft and onto the ground. In fact, the EPA has mandated that new airports in cold climates recover 60% of DI fluid.


Edit

It may be important to note that the point of DI fluid is to keep the snow/ice off the aircraft until it leaves the ground, not assist in flight into known ice. Depending on the fluid applied, they usually only stay on until the aircraft reaches about 100kts. This means that most of the applied DI fluid is going to end up in the airports wastewater system because most will run off the aircraft on the ramp/apron, not spread around the countryside as the aircraft flies around.

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  • $\begingroup$ When you say "most of the DI fluid is going to end up in the airports wastewater system", do you have any idea of the proportion of fluid spread around? On an international airport with tenth of take off per hours, even if few percent of the fluid is spread around, the quantity spread around may be significant. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Dec 28 '15 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe I wasn't clear, what I meant was that most of the DI is going to end up on the airfield, with recoverable quantities in the wastewater system. The rest of it will be in the grass/non-recoverable areas on the airfield and then will break down as per the first part of my post. I have a feeling though that 90% (my guess) of what is going to run off the aircraft is going to happen on the apron and be collected in the treatment systems, but to answer your question directly, no I can't find any data about physical quantities or % that is "left at the airport". $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Dec 28 '15 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ It's perhaps also worth noting that "biodegradable" and "relatively harmless" does not actually mean completely harmless. As a notable local example, a couple of years ago a project to run a rail tunnel under Helsinki Airport ran into considerable difficulties when it turned out that deicing fluid was seeping (and had been seeping for decades) into the bedrock under the airport, where it was, indeed, biodegraded by bacteria -- into acidic compounds that could eat away concrete. Basically, construction had to be halted and the tunnel redesigned to withstand this corrosive environment. $\endgroup$ Dec 29 '15 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ @IlmariKaronen Very good point, thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Dec 29 '15 at 16:52
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Hopefully this helps from a deicer in Michigan.

When we deice an aircraft during deice season November- March we use a Deice pad at the airport (This is the same for all major airports) On this Deice pad we spray the aircraft and any DI fluid that falls off of the aircraft goes down a drain made specially for DI Fluid. This drain runs the perimeter of the deice pad and collects all DI Fluid that is sprayed.

When the aircraft has been sprayed it tends to sit on the deice pad for an additional 3-5 minutes to allow some excess DI Fluid to run off of the plane.

After that time the plane will begin to taxi and take off. The minimal amount of DI Fluid left of the plane will sheer off during takeoff and will land and remain at the airport. (Which has a special drainage system to care for DI Fluid)

Hope this helps everyone!

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