Aircraft noise at smaller airports, likely to have negative mental health impact if they have night flights
Aircraft noise from large airports has been frequently linked to harm to mental health, as well as physical health, but it is not known whether the same is true for smaller airports. In this blog, Dr David Wright, lead author of a recently published article in Environmental Health, looked at how much aircraft noise around a smaller airport – Belfast City – affected mental health. It has about 40,000 annual flights, compared to Heathrow 475,000. There is growing evidence that noise generated by large airports also affects the mental health of local residents (see NORAH and HYENA, the two largest studies). As more airlines are flying direct between smaller airports, no longer using hubs, this is an important issue. The study looked at individual and household characteristics, overlaid with noise contours. It found there was a correlation of worse mental health in areas near the airport, under the flight path. But these areas were often poorer, and poverty increases the risk of mental ill-health – so wealth rather than aircraft noise best explains the findings. However, Belfast City airport does not have night flights (21:30 to 06:30), and it is noise that disturbs sleep that has the main impacts on mental health. “Setting sensible curfew hours would strike a balance between the economic benefits and health risks of living close to an airport.”
Aircraft noise at small airports and mental health
Aircraft noise from large airports has been frequently linked to affecting mental health, but it is not known whether the same is true for smaller airports. In this blog post, Dr David Wright, lead author of a recently published article in Environmental Health, discusses how the noise environment around a smaller airport showed little influence on population mental health.
David Wright (Biomed Central)
12 Nov 2018
Air travel is expanding world-wide and airports are often at the heart of local economies (I grew up three miles from London Gatwick and my first summer job was in the left luggage office). On the downside, aircraft noise exposure has been linked with physical health problems (e.g. hypertension and cardiovascular disease) and there is growing evidence that noise generated at large airports also affects the mental health of local residents (see NORAH and HYENA, the two largest studies).
Aircraft noise exposure has been linked with physical health problems
We wanted to know whether mental health is similarly affected at smaller, regional airports. This is important as many airlines are switching to fleets of smaller planes flying directly between regional airports, avoiding the major international hubs.
Environmental factors like noise typically produce subtle differences in health outcomes, so we needed a very large dataset to have the best chance of detecting an effect. We linked two administrative datasets (data that are collected for purposes other than research); the 2011 Census records for all residents in our study city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, which provided detailed information on individual and household characteristics, overlaid with noise contours generated as part of the noise monitoring programme at George Best Belfast City Airport.
We found that individuals in high noise areas under the flight path were more likely to have reported poor mental health than those in low noise areas. However, households in high noise areas also tended to be less wealthy and once we accounted for this, we found no evidence that noise was associated with poor mental health. Simply put, wealth rather than aircraft noise best explains these gradients in mental health.
Returning to our main question, the detrimental effects of aircraft noise on mental health found at large airports did not extend to this smaller airport, even at similar average noise levels. Why should this be? We suspect the main answer lies in the timing of noise events. Belfast City Airport does not routinely operate night flights whereas most previously studied airports do, so sleep disturbance (closely linked with mental health) may be the driving factor.
[• Belfast City Airport Operating Hours: flights may only be scheduled to operate between 06:30 hours and 21:30 hours. Extensions may be granted in exceptional circumstances to facilitate delayed aircraft up to 23:59 hours.
• Movements cap: GBBCA may only operate 48,000 aircraft movements in any 12 month period. http://www.belfastcityairport.com/Community/Environment/Aircraft-Noise.aspx ]
The detrimental effects of aircraft noise on mental health found at large airports did not extend to this smaller airport
The real test of any research finding is whether it can be replicated elsewhere. One way to test the sleep disturbance hypothesis would be to repeat our study across several airports with different numbers and timing of night flights. Accessing information on individual mental health would be the main challenge. In our experience, good datasets – like the administrative datasets we used – already exist, and the key task is to persuade everyone involved that data can safely be used for research to bring public benefit. This study demonstrates the potential of using these large, existing administrative data sets to explore questions we couldn’t answer with smaller available data sets, and it was done without compromising privacy or confidentiality.
Living in a noisy area close to an airport with approximately 40,000 mainly daytime flights annually was not in itself bad for mental health. Therefore, planning decisions for airports up to this size can concentrate more on atmospheric pollution and the effects of noise on aspects of physical health. If further work confirms our suspicion that sleep disturbance drives the noise-mental health association at larger airports, setting sensible curfew hours would strike a balance between the economic benefits and health risks of living close to an airport.
The research is at
PhD study indicates flight ban until 6am could save £ millions on NHS prescriptions for health impacts
A PhD thesis by an economics researcher at Kings College London, Silvia Beghelli, looked at “The Health Effects of Noise and Air Pollution”. She looked at the medications prescribed to patients in areas affected by Heathrow planes, and the medical costs of the health impacts. She looked at a trial performed over 5 months at Heathrow in 2012, when planes did not fly over designated areas in the early mornings, between 4:30am and 6am. She found that fewer drugs were prescribed for respiratory and nervous system conditions in areas with the reduced air traffic. Mrs Beghelli cross-referenced NHS data with the trial’s findings and found a link between air traffic and health, notably a 5.8% decrease in spending on pills including anxiolytics for conditions such as insomnia, anxiety and depression in the no-fly zones. As well as meaning the quality of health of people in these areas must have been better, the lower prescribing saved the NHS money. She calculated that modifying flight schedules could save £5 million in NHS prescription costs. It could also cut demand for hospital appointments. The study suggests that early morning planes are causing people to need more prescriptions.