As aircraft become quieter, health concerns about noise grow louder

  
The Russian-built IL-76 airliner, banned from Europe due to its high noise signature. [Colin Cooke/Flickr]

Millions of urban Europeans are exposed to aviation noise that contributes to stress, high blood pressure and even weight gain, say health specialists who want stronger measures to make flying quieter.

While new-generation jet engines are on average 75% quieter than than their 20th century predecessors, the advance in technology has been offset by a steady rise in flights and a demand for bigger passenger planes.

Stephen Stansfeld, a noise expert who heads the Centre for Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London, says there is little doubt that “repeated and prolonged exposure” to the commotion of aviation is linked to heart and blood pressure problems, and can cause diminished learning in children.

People’s annoyance with air traffic also seems to be rising, “and it’s not entirely understood why that should be, whether it is greater sensitivity to airport operations, or whether it’s due to the fact there is more change around airports in terms of noise exposure which could sensitise people,” Stansfeld told EurActiv in a telephone interview. “The noise level from individual aircraft has gone down, but of course there are many more of them.”

Marie-Eve Héroux, technical officer on air quality and noise at the World Health Organization’s Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, points to “significant research” into the health impact of transportation noise in general. As examples, she cites sleep disturbance, annoyance, cognitive impairment, ringing sounds in ears, as well as a rise in cardiovascular diseases, hearing impairment and adverse birth outcomes.

“Compelling evidence points at a significant burden of disease from noise and provides convincing arguments for strong action to properly manage noise sources, including aircraft noise,” she told EurActiv in an e-mail.

Medical researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm added weight gain to the potential impact of noise on public health. In a study of people living near the Swedish capital’s Arlanda Airport, the research team found that prolonged exposure to aircraft noise caused a “statistically significant” increase in waist sizes.

New noise regulations

Policymakers have not been deaf to public health concerns. A new EU law (Regulation 598) is due to take effect on June 13, 2016, putting the EU in line with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s “balanced approach” to reduce noise by encouraging airlines to capitalise on a new generation of quieter engines, improving airport planning and - as a last resort - imposing restrictions on night flights.

It remains to be seen how effective those measures will be.

Civic groups have expressed dismay that the EU did not set verifiable reduction targets or impose bans on nighttime operations, and continue to make their own noise. This spring, for instance, landing patterns over Brussels became a hot potato in parliamentary elections, while protesters held their 100th demonstration at Frankfurt Airport, accusing Europe’s third largest aerodrome of harming neighbours’ health and demanding measures to reduce noise levels.

Roads and rails make noise, too

Yet aviation alone is far from a lone culprit in transport noise pollution.

Overall, annual noise pollution from roads, rails and runways erase one million years of healthy living among urban residents of EU countries, and that may be a conservative estimate, according to a 2011 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).

The UN body uses a disability-adjusted life year - the gap between current and ideal health conditions - to measure environmental impacts on humans. When it comes to noise-induced problems from all forms of transporation, it calculates that 903,000 years are lost to disturbed sleep, 61,000 to cardiovascular disease, 45,000 to learning impairment in children, and 22,000 to tinnitus - or hearing-related problems.

The WHO-JRC study showed that about half of Europe’s 285 million urban dwellers were regularly exposed to traffic noise above 55-decibels (dB) - a level WHO considers to be unacceptably high. That compares to five percent (14.3 million) for rail and four percent (11.4 million) for air traffic. More conservative industry estimates put the latter figure at closer to 3.5 million.

Still, a far higher percentage of people complained to the WHO-JRC researchers of being “highly annoyed” by airport noise, consistent with the findings of leading academic studies on noise pollution and particularly on the nighttime disturbances that trigger the biggest concerns.

WHO guidelines set 40 dB as the recommended nighttime outdoor target “to protect the public, including the most vulnerable groups such as children, the chronically ill and the elderly.” The health organisation says 55 dB “is recommended as an interim target for the countries where the [nighttime guideline] cannot be achieved in the short term for various reasons, and where policy-makers choose to adopt a stepwise approach.

Making peace

Driven by confrontations with angry citizens, bad press and legislation, airports and airlines have taken steps to reduce their noise footprint. London’s Heathrow has instituted a Noise Action Plan and public outreach programme that have won kudos even from traditional critics. Copenhagen’s airport has imposed requirements on airlines - including restrictions on engine use during taxiing and requiring parked aircraft to connect to ground power rather than use onboard generators - steps designed to reduce noise and air pollution.

>> Read: Copenhagen Airport applies noise lessons to cut air pollution

Meanwhile, airlines are investing in flying machines with quieter engines, components and aerodynamic features. The shift is not purely altruistic, though - planes that are quieter to operate also tend to gulp less fuel.

>> Read: Heavy metal thunder: Aircraft grow quieter as rock drones on

Queen Mary University’s Stansfeld acknowledges that aircraft are becoming quieter and that airports are more accommodating to complaints. Yet health problems associated with aviation noise have not declined and - alluding to the controversial plans for a third runway at London Heathrow - he says public health may be taking a back seat to economics.

“It seems to me the economic considerations - rightly or wrongly - are predominating at the moment and the environmental considerations take rather a second place,” he said, while pointing out that jobs are important too. “Obviously [there are] positive effects on health from full employment and airports do provide full employment or at least a very good source of employment.”

Finding a balance between healthy people and a sound economy aren’t simple, he says. “Ultimately, what one is hoping is that there will be much quieter aircraft.”

Positions: 

Asked about the new EU airport noise regulation that is due to take effect in 2016, Marie-Eve Héroux, technical officer on air quality and Noise at the World Health Organization’s Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, told EurActiv by e-mail: “WHO welcomes strengthened action from the European Union (EU) in assessing the exposure of its citizens to environmental noise, with a specific process to limit aircraft noise. The new EU regulation incorporates the international rules introduced by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a United Nations specialised agency. It also highlights the continued need to measure and manage noise pollution according to EU Directives 2002/49/EC. As it does not focus on specific levels of exposure to noise in the population, it cannot be directly compared to existing WHO guidelines on noise.”

Karolinska Institutet medical researchers Charlotta Eriksson, Agneta Hilding, Andrei Pyko, Gösta Bluhm, Göran Pershagen and Claes-Göran Östenson - the authors of a study in a study published in the July 2014 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives - said: “Although there is a lack of epidemiological studies linking long-term noise exposure to overweight or obesity, substantial evidence links noise to a stress response and also links chronic stress to impaired metabolic functions. In addition, noise exposure is commonly associated with sleep disturbances, which are known to have metabolic complications.”

Timeline: 
  • June 14-20: Farnborough International Airshow
  • June 13, 2016: EU regulation on airport noise takes effect
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