People who live close to an airport and are exposed to constant loud aircraft noise may face an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to studies from the UK and the US published on Tuesday night.
The continual barrage of noise from planes taking off and landing may cause actual harm to health as well as reducing the quality of people’s lives, the studies say, and their findings should be factored in to future planning decisions about new airports and runways.
A study published online by the British Medical Journal looking at the health of people living in the vicinity of Heathrow airport found those with the highest exposure were 10-20% more likely to be admitted to hospital for stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. There was also an increased risk of death from those diseases. A linked study of the health of more than six million Americans over the age of 65 living around 89 US airports found that, on average, their risk went up 3.5% for every extra 10 decibels of noise.
The scientists warn that what they have found is a link and not proof that high aircraft noise levels cause disease. Although they have taken into account the socioeconomic background, ethnicity and likely state of health of people living in the affected areas – which is probably not as good as that of much of the population – neither study could look at the individual circumstances of those who were admitted to hospital.
But, says Professor Stephen Stansfeld at Queen Mary University of London in an editorial, “these studies provide preliminary evidence that aircraft noise exposure is not just a cause of annoyance, sleep disturbance, and reduced quality of life but may also increase morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease.
“The results imply that the siting of airports and consequent exposure to aircraft noise may have direct effects on the health of the surrounding population. Planners need to take this into account when expanding airports in heavily populated areas or planning new airports.”
The UK study was carried out by researchers at the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit and MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, which was set up after scares linking the nuclear reprocessing plant Windscale (later Sellafield) to cancers in the vicinity. They looked at the health of residents of 12 London boroughs and nine districts outside London where aircraft noise exceeds 50 decibels – about the volume of a normal conversation in a quiet room – between 2001 and 2005.
Those who had to put up with the highest noise levels – more than 63 decibels in the day or 55 decibels at night – had the highest risks. They make up about 2% of the 3.6 million people living in the study area.
“The exact role that noise exposure may play in ill health is not well established,” said the lead author, Dr Anna Hansell from the school of public health at Imperial College London. “However, it is plausible that it might be contributing, for example by raising blood pressure or by disturbing people’s sleep. The relative importance of daytime and night-time noise also needs to be investigated further.”
While diet, exercise, smoking and medical conditions – as well as road traffic noise – all raise people’s risks of cardiovascular disease, the scientists say aircraft noise should not be ignored.
“How best to meet commercial aircraft capacity for London and other major cities is a matter of active debate,” they say. “However, policy decisions need to take account of potential health related concerns, including possible effects of environmental noise on cardiovascular health.”
The US study was carried out by scientists at the Harvard school of public health and Boston University school of public health. They found that 2.3% of hospitalisations for cardiovascular disease among older people living near airports were attributable to aircraft noise.
Despite some study limitations, the researchers say their results “provide evidence of a statistically significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and cardiovascular health, particularly at higher exposure levels.”
Other scientists agreed that the studies showed a possible link between aircraft noise and cardiovascular disease, but said more evidence was needed if noise was to be established as the actual cause of illness.
“A major difficulty in interpreting what these studies tell us is that they are based on data for geographical areas, not for individual people,” said Kevin McConway, a professor of applied statistics at Open University, adding: “Geographical areas don’t get heart attacks and strokes – individual people do.”
He said: “Within any one of the areas they studied, individuals vary in terms of how much aircraft noise they personally are exposed to, depending on how much time they actually spend at home in the area, how good the sound insulation of their home is, and a whole host of other reasons.” The UK study adjusted for smoking but neither study adjusted for diet and exercise, he added.
Details of the American study are at
Residential exposure to aircraft noise and hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases: multi-airport retrospective study
Despite limitations related to potential misclassification of exposure, we found a statistically significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular diseases among older people living near airports.
Conclusions and future research
We found that aircraft noise, particularly characterized by the 90th centile of noise exposure among census blocks within zip codes, is statistically significantly associated with higher relative rate of hospitalization for cardiovascular disease among older people residing near airports. This relation remained after controlling for individual data, zip code level socioeconomic status and demographics, air pollution, and roadway proximity variables. Our results provide evidence of a statistically significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and cardiovascular health, particularly at higher exposure levels. Further research should refine these associations and strengthen causal interpretation by investigating modifying factors at the airport or individual level.
Why living near an airport could be bad for your health
Studies reveal link between areas with high noise pollution and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke among residents
8 OCTOBER 2013 (Independent)
Anyone who has ever lived under a flight path will tell you that the constant din of jet engines is more than enough to raise your blood pressure.
But now researchers are warning for the first time that there may be a real health risk associated with aircraft noise. Two studies, published today in the British Medical Journal, found evidence that people living in areas with high levels of noise pollution from passing aeroplanes had a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
The first study compared Civil Aviation Authority data on aircraft sound levels with hospital admissions and mortality rates for 3.6 million people living near Heathrow Airport, in areas where aircraft noise exceeded 50 decibels – the level of normal conversation in a quiet room.
Researchers from Imperial College London and King’s College London found that the risks of cardiovascular disease were greater for those living in neighbourhoods with highest noise levels and closest to the airport, such as Slough and Hounslow. Around 72,000 people living in the noisiest areas had a 10 to 20 per cent greater risk than people living in the quietest areas, researchers estimated.
A second investigation carried out in the US looked at heart disease among 6 million people living close to 89 airports. More than two per cent of hospitalisations for cardiovascular diseases could be attributed to aircraft noise, the researchers from the Harvard School for Public Health and the Boston University School of Public Health said.
Previous studies have suggested a link between a noisy environment and high blood pressure. Loud noise can lead to short-term increases in blood pressure, and sustained exposure could lead to more long-term risk. Scientists also proposed that night-time aircraft noise could be disturbing people’s sleep, which is another risk factor for heart disease.
Although health leaders in the UK stopped short of confirming a causal link between aircraft noise and heart problems, the studies show a strong association, which they said should be taken into account in future plans to expand airport capacity.
The findings come just days after the chairman of the Airports Commission Sir Howard Davies, the man tasked with solving the problem of the South East of England’s airport capacity, said that he would consider adding a third runway at Heathrow and a second runway at Gatwick.
Professor Paul Elliott, from the Centre for Environment and Health said: “The issue here is particularly with areas with the highest levels of aircraft noise. How can you design your future airports and airport capacity [while] trying to keep the exposure to the population below those highest levels? That’s [a question] the policymakers have to take into account. They’re already well aware of the annoyance levels. What we’re adding into the mix is that there may also be an effect on risk of heart disease.”
The Heathrow study covered 12 London boroughs and nine districts outside London. The study area was divided into 12,110 zones with a population of around 300 people each. Data on the noise levels for each small area in 2001, provided by the Civil Aviation Authority, was compared with information from the Office for National Statistics and the Department of Health on hospital admissions and deaths from cardiovascular disease between 2001 and 2005.
The results were adjusted to account for other heart disease risk factors, such as social deprivation and air pollution – although the area-based analysis made separating risks associated with factors such as smoking and ethnicity difficult.
In an editorial for the BMJ, Stephen Stansfeld, professor of psychiatry at Barts and London School of Medicine, said that the results “imply that the siting of airports and consequent exposure to aircraft noise may have direct effects on the health of the surrounding population. Planners need to take this into account when expanding airports in heavily populated areas or planning new airports,” he said.
Matt Gorman, Heathrow’s director of sustainability, said that the airport was already taking “significant steps” to reduce noise pollution by charging airlines more for louder aircraft and offering insulation and double glazing to local residents.
“Together these measures have meant that the number of people affected by noise has fallen by 90 per cent since the 1970s, despite the number of flights almost doubling. We are committed to ensuring this reduction continues,” he said.
A spokesman for the Airports Commission said: “We are aware of this report and will consider its findings. Environmental impacts, including levels of noise, are within the scope of our considerations and are something we are already looking at.”
Case study: ‘I can hear a plane every 90 seconds’
Margaret Thorburn, 59, lives in Osterley, London, under the Heathrow flight path
“These findings are alarming. Yet they reinforce what many of us living here have suspected for a long time. I have lived in Osterley for 30 years and have been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
“What people don’t realise is that it’s not just the sound of the aircraft – but how you have to adapt your entire audio environment. Everything in the house has to be louder to block out the noise; while your subconcious thought patterns are continuously interrupted.
“Over the years I have no doubt this has taken its toll on my anxiety levels.
“For all you hear about more advanced and quieter planes, the frequency of take-offs and landings are more than I ever remember. It’s not unusual for my day to be interrupted every 90 seconds. At the age of 59, I may well consider moving. But there are many of us that simply don’t have that option.”
A health warning that could stall debate on expansion of our airports
For those keen to see expansion, the report is more than an unwelcome irritation
SIMON CALDER (Independent)
Tuesday 8 October 2013
Passengers aboard the first wave of flights descending over west London into Heathrow this morning may have health concerns – but only about their own well-being. They could fret about the short-term impact of a 14-hour flight from Singapore or Hong Kong to Britain, and the longer-term effects of disrupting circadian rhythms by crossing time zones faster than the speed of sunlight. They are, though, unlikely to think about the millions of people over whose homes and lives their Airbus or Boeing is rumbling.
Today’s findings in the British Medical Journal add another important dimension to the question of our age: how damaging is air travel? As every long-haul airline passenger knows, sleep deprivation is an unwelcome irritation. Now researchers say they have identified something much more serious: a “significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and cardiovascular health”. The risks appear to rise sharply for people living very close to a busy airport.
For those keen to see expansion, particularly at Heathrow, the report will prove more than an unwelcome irritation; if the findings are sustained and augmented, the airport expansion debate takes on a new character. Sir Howard Davies is the chairman of the body charged with solving the aviation capacity crunch in south-east England.
Two days ago, he revealed the Airport Commission’s work thus far. Sir Howard gave a meticulous exposition of the factors concerning his commission, from maintaining Britain’s global competitiveness to meeting the UK’s carbon emissions targets. He paid due regard to the concerns of local residents about noise and traffic.
But 48 hours ago a correlation between airport proximity and the risk of heart attacks or strokes was not in the public domain. Now that it is, the spectrum of harm from airports has extended from nuisance to a serious public health threat.