Aircraft noise and health – two new UK studies underway

That noise from transport sources affects our health is acknowledged by the World Health Organisation and the Chief Medical Officer for England. Expansion of airports and the reduction of the night time quiet period means more of us could be exposed to aircraft niose for longer.  John Gulliver, Professor of Environmental and Exposure Sciences at University of Leicester gives and overview of the impacts of transport noise and introduces new studies into the health effects of aircraft noise in the UK.

Environmental noise and health

Many people will acknowledge that noise can be annoying, but they may not know that noise has been associated with a wide range of health outcomes, some of which may not be obvious. These include sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, cognitive impairment, hearing impairment, and cardiovascular diseases. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), noise accounts for over one million years of life lost annually to ill health and may lead to an environmental disease burden that is second only in magnitude to that from air pollution.

Noise related to transport has become a major focus of environmental and public health concern, especially in urban areas. The WHO are currently developing Environmental Noise Guidelines by reviewing the evidence on the health effects of noise for transport to include aircraft, rail, and road, and other sources of concern such as industry and wind turbines. The most comprehensive evidence is for a link between road traffic and incidence of heart disease. There is increasing interest in the health effects of aircraft noise but more studies are required to provide a robust evidence base. One of the main concerns around aircraft is the expansion of airports and the shortening of the nighttime quiet period. There have been calls around the world for a complete ban on night flights for a period of at least seven hours. Heathrow Airport, for example, does not have a ban on night flights but has restrictions on the number of take-offs and landings it is allowed between the night hours of 11:30 and 06:00.

New studies on aircraft noise and health

Two major new studies in the UK aim to provide robust evidence on the short- and long-term health effects of aircraft noise. Researchers from University of Leicester and Imperial College London (funded by the National Institute for Health Research) will use maps of aircraft noise related to Heathrow Airport, that change each day by reflecting varying flight paths and weather patterns, to examine short-term effects on hospital admissions and deaths from cardiovascular disease. Researchers from University of Leicester, Imperial College London, King’s College, and University College London (funded by the Medical Research Council) are undertaking the first comprehensive study of long-term cardiovascular impacts of aircraft noise near major airports in the UK. Maps of annual average aircraft noise will be used to examine whether aircraft noise shows associations with mortality and NHS hospital admissions. A number of large and well characterised cohorts (>500,000 people) will also be used to examine whether aircraft noise shows associations with risk factors including blood pressure and heart rate variability.

 Both of these studies will be completed by 2020 and will provide the first comprehensive assessment of the health effects of aircraft noise in the UK. Evidence from these studies will be used to support policy on the development and regulation of airports in the UK and other countries.

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