Government must do more to protect the public from aircraft noise health impacts, says AEF report
Wed 20 Jan 2016 – UK government policy is lagging behind growing evidence that aircraft noise is a pervasive public health problem and it should draw up long-term noise targets and review all noise policies, recommends a report by campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF). The report identifies the health risks potentially impacting over one million people in the UK alone who live in areas where aircraft noise over a 24-hour period is above recommended health levels. Aircraft noise is associated with increased risk of heart and circulatory problems including increased blood pressure and higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Health is also detrimentally affected by sleep disturbance and annoyance, and can affect the memory and learning ability of school children, says AEF. With key aviation policy decisions due in 2016 on runway expansion, flightpath change principles and night flight regulations, it says the government must update noise policies accordingly.
Noise from transport and industrial sources is second only to particulate air pollution as the largest environmental risk to public health in Western Europe but, unlike for air quality, there are no legally binding health-based national or European limits for noise. Current EU policy requires only that Member States introduce noise action plans with the aim of reducing noise, without providing any clear targets.
In addition, there is evidence that public attitudes to aircraft noise are changing, despite today’s aircraft being individually less noisy than previous generations. A survey by Defra, the UK government’s environment ministry, in 2012 showed that nearly one third (31%) of those interviewed from a sample across the UK were annoyed, disturbed or disrupted by aircraft noise levels where they lived, with 4% of them saying they were severely disrupted. These findings were significantly higher than those in the previous survey carried out in 2000.
The AEF report recommends the government should continue to monitor changes in annoyance responses to aircraft noise and it notes the findings of an attitudes study commissioned by the Department for Transport are expected to be published in 2016.
Many of the people affected by harmful levels of aircraft noise live around Heathrow Airport, with three times as many living within its 55 dBA Lden (24-hour) noise contour than Frankfurt Airport, which has the second highest number of people exposed at this level in Europe. A 2013 study, says the report, found people around Heathrow exposed to high levels of aircraft noise (above 63 dBA Leq 16-hour average daytime noise) had a 24% higher chance of having a stroke, 21% higher chance of heart disease and 14% higher chance of cardiovascular diseases, compared to people exposed to less than 51 dBA. Another study in 2008 found that people had 14% higher blood pressure per 10dB increase in aircraft noise at night. The AEF report says 460 schools around Heathrow are exposed to aircraft noise above 54 dBA Leq, which it claims is higher than the onset threshold of the effect on children’s memory and learning.
With the government due to make an already delayed decision on a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick this summer, AEF says it needs to clearly demonstrate it has a plan to ensure that any new runway would be compatible with health-based noise targets before proceeding.
The government is also consulting during the coming year on night-time regulations for the period beyond 2017 at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. “The next regulations for night flights at the designated airports should act on the growing body of evidence identifying that the long-term health implications of night noise are particularly severe, and aim to reduce night noise as soon as possible,” says the report.
It adds it should be a requirement of any flightpath change proposals that they be assessed based on whether the aim of the changes is to reduce noise towards health-based levels.
“For too long aircraft noise has been seen as only an inconvenience,” commented AEF’s James Lees, author of the report. “Failure to address this problem could make aircraft noise the next public health crisis waiting to happen. Government should end its inaction and start putting the health of its citizens first.”