A recent study by the conservative Mercatus Center at George Mason University labels those who complain about airport noise as NIMBYs. (NIMBY means Not In My Back Yard.) The study conveniently ignores a large body of medical research showing that airplane noise increases the risk of morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, it trivializes the seriousness of a problem affecting the health and well-being of millions of Americans–-Democrats and Republicans alike, including president-elect Trump. Elected officials and government agencies must take action to protect the public.  The reauthorization of funding for the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) provides an opportunity for Congress to take such action now.

Why is airplane noise suddenly an issue?  In 2003, the Federal Aviation Administration rolled out a program known as NextGen. The basic idea of NextGen was to use satellite navigation systems to better control aircraft flight paths, increasing safety, efficiency, and capacity to reduce fuel consumption, emissions, and flight times–all laudable goals. But NextGen did not address airplane noise, a major concern of those living near airports.  As with many well-meaning government programs, NextGen led to unintended consequences: more precise flight paths that concentrated noise over certain neighborhoods and dramatically increased noise exposure for those unfortunate enough to live under the new flight paths.

The noise consequences of NextGen are affecting communities across the country. In metropolitan Washington, DC, Howard County is threatening to sue the FAA as is College Park near Atlanta, following on similar actions taken by Phoenix, AZ, Minneapolis, MN, and others in California and around the country. In Phoenix, conservative icon Sen. John McCain pushed legislation through Congress to require the FAA to review the new flight paths. In Palm Beach, Florida, president-elect Trump is suing for $100 million in damages relating to the “unreasonable amount of noise, emissions and pollutants” from planes flying over his Mar-a-Lago Club near Palm Beach, Florida.

Airplane noise is not just a quality of life issue but a public health issue.  Safe noise exposure levels are discussed in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  In general, noise causes auditory problems including hearing loss, and environmental noise is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, specifically increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.  Nighttime noise is especially harmful.

The Mercatus Center report provided the impetus to look more closely into some of the research on health impacts of airplane noise. What is striking are the consistent findings from many well-designed studies performed in populations living near airports in several countries demonstrating that aircraft noise has significant negative health impacts including disturbance, sleep disruption, cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and heart attack, hospitalization, and death. Based on all the evidence, Theodore Münzel, MD wrote, “Aircraft noise causes arterial hypertension, stroke, and ischemic heart disease….Taken together, there is no doubt anymore that living closer to airports will cause more cardiovascular disease due to increased noise.” Noted noise expert Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, President of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise, recently noted, “The overwhelming majority of noise effect researchers today accept that there is a causal relationship between environmental noise exposure and increased cardiac risk.”

Non-auditory problems can occur at noise levels that are 15 decibels lower than those causing hearing damage. The louder and longer the noise exposure, the greater the frequency and severity of adverse health outcomes. Here are some examples: A US study showed that airplane noise exposure significantly increased hospitalizations for cardiovascular diseases among older people living in areas surrounding 89 airports in the 48 contiguous states. Similar results were reported in a study of people living near London’s Heathrow Airport. A German study found an increased risk of heart attacks in those exposed to airplane, road, and railroad noise. Many other studies show associations between airplane noise and high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Some studies suggest that airplane noise may also have negative impacts on cardiovascular function in children.

Basic science studies support the relationships between airplane noise and cardiovascular problems. Studies in animals and humans show that noise exposure increases stress hormones and oxidative stress, and changes in glucose and lipid metabolism known to cause cardiovascular disease.

To those at the Mercatus Center, to the Koch brothers who fund it, and to science denialists who dismiss airplane noise as just a nuisance, we say, “No it isn’t. Aircraft noise is a health hazard, most likely causing illness, hospitalization, and death for large numbers of Americans.”  If they and the FAA insist on perpetuating these harmful consequences, we ask, “How many excess hospitalizations and deaths are acceptable for people living near airports?”  The Europeans have taken major actions to reduce airport noise and damage to the health of its citizens. The United States should, too.

Protecting public health is a reason for collaboration and cooperation amongst diverse groups.  It is not a partisan issue. A bipartisan expansion of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus would strengthen efforts to move industry and the FAA in the right direction. Recommendations like those expressed in the Caucus’ letter to Representatives Shuster and DeFazio are perfectly reasonable and would go far to help protect the public from airplane noise.

Industry can also make quieter planes; Airbus’ giant A380, the world’s largest passenger airplane, is much quieter than the smaller Boeing 747-800.  If Rolls-Royce can make quieter jet engines, so can General Electric. The FAA must establish standards for quieter airplanes and jet engines. In the meantime it should revise the NextGen program to change approach and departure flight paths to reduce noise over neighborhoods near airports and under flight paths. If the Secret Service can keep planes from flying over Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Club, Congress can protect ordinary Americans too.

By Daniel Fink, MD, Founding Board Chair, and Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Program Director

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