The risk of a "major air crash involving many casualties on the ground" will be increased by the construction of the fifth terminal at Heathrow, according to the official report into the project.
Development at Gatwick or Stansted would be safer because aircraft would fly over areas with lower population densities, the chairman of the four-year public inquiry says.
In a highly sensitive passage of the 1,800-page report, Roy Vandermeer QC says that, despite efforts by the authorities to minimise the danger, more people will be exposed to a "material risk" by terminal 5 and that this represents a "real and substantial" objection to the project.
The "significant increase in the risk to public safety" would result from a combination of the use of bigger aircraft, for which terminal 5 was designed, and more flights.
Mr Vandermeer concluded that "on balance" the fifth terminal, costing £2.5bn and due for completion by 2007, should go ahead. Neither Gatwick nor Stansted could "meet the national need for a truly competitive international airport serving London" in the available timescale.
On the advice of Mr Vandermeer, Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, is to restrict the number of flights to 480,000 compared with last year's total of 460,000.
John Stewart of HACAN ClearSkies, which has campaigned against the expansion of Heathrow, said Mr Byers was putting the safety of Londoners at risk by not taking the warnings seriously. He pointed out that Mr Byers had not mentioned the increased risks in his statement accepting the inquiry report and giving approval for the project.
Mr Stewart added: "This was a major report on certainly the most important transport planning decision the Government will have to take and the media only had a couple of hours to digest it. Clearly the Government had something to hide."
Critics argued the Government would come under intense pressure to remove the limit on flights, which would further increase the risk for those on the ground.
The Vandermeer report acknowledges the new terminal would "enhance the attractions of Heathrow still more and could make it more difficult to resist future proposals".
While the inquiry chairman concludes that the proposed third main runway at the west London airport would be "totally unacceptable", Mr Byers has refused to rule it out.
A spokesman for the Department of Transport said the Secretary of State had acknowledged Mr Vandermeer's comments on the risks.Reuse content