Studies link aircraft noise to heart ailments

Two studies linked aircraft noise to higher rates of cardiovascular disease in results that may fuel debate about the effect airports have on their neighbors.

The first study found rates of strokes and heart disease increased with people’s proximity to London’s Heathrow Airport, Europe’s busiest hub. The second found that U.S. seniors on Medicare who were exposed to the most airplane noise were also more likely to have been hospitalized for heart disease. The British Medical Journal published both papers.

The research adds weight to the idea that where you put an airport doesn’t just affect neighbors’ quality of life, but also their health, Stephen Stansfeld, a psychiatry professor at Barts and the London School of Medicine, wrote in an editorial published alongside the two studies. Heathrow, in particular, has been mired in debate over how to add capacity to London’s airports.

“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,” Stansfeld wrote. “Planners need to take this into account when expanding airports in heavily populated areas or planning new airports.”

Heathrow handled 70 million passengers last year. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said he’ll block any expansion around the airport, which is surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods, in favor of a new hub in the River Thames estuary.

The BMJ’s Heathrow study looked at 3.6 million people who lived in 12 London boroughs and nine districts west of London, using Civil Aviation Authority aircraft noise models from 2001 and hospital admissions data from 2001 to 2005 to draw a comparison. Researchers said they took ethnicity, social deprivation and smoking into account, using lung cancer deaths as a proxy to help determine smoking rates.

About 2 percent of the population the London researchers studied lived in the area with the highest level of noise – more than 63 decibels in the daytime or more than 55 decibels at night-time. By way of comparison, that’s within the range of laughter or normal conversation, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Those living in the noisiest areas were more likely to be hospitalized because of stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.

The British study was conducted by Britain’s Small Area Health Statistics Unit and funded by Public Health England and the British Medical Research Council, with support from the European Network for Noise and Health.

The U.S. study was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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