An EA-18G Growler taxis down the airstrip on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island during the squadron’s welcome home ceremony in August 2017. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Wood/U.S. Navy)

An EA-18G Growler taxis down the airstrip on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island during the squadron’s welcome home ceremony in August 2017. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Wood/U.S. Navy)

Navy jet noise could mean long-term health impacts for Whidbey Island

For everyone living in Oak Harbor and Coupeville, the noise was as loud as a rock concert, researchers said.

By Elise Takahama / The Seattle Times

More than 74,000 people on Whidbey Island could face long-term health impacts from the U.S. Navy jet noise that has blasted over residents several days a week for over a decade, new research shows.

A study from the University of Washington, published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, reports the noise from the Boeing EA-18G Growlers and their training drills present a “substantial risk” to two-thirds of Island County residents.

For everyone living in Oak Harbor and Coupeville and 85% of the Swinomish Reservation, the noise measured over 100 decibels — as loud as a rock concert, said lead author Gio Jacuzzi, a graduate student in the UW College of Environment.

The effects could expose communities to high levels of sleep disturbance, hearing impairment, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and delays in childhood learning, as well as annoyance and stress, the study says. The jets are based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where noise has sparked various community and legal debates over the past decade.

“There is very little literature and comparatively few scientific studies that look at impacts of military aircraft noise,” Jacuzzi said in an interview this week. “This is not an Alaska Airlines jet coming in every 10 minutes into Sea-Tac (International Airport). These are sporadic events that can happen at any hour of the day or night.”

A spokesperson for the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island declined to comment, though Jacuzzi confirmed his team has been in communication with the air station throughout the research process.

The spokesperson instead cited Navy policy not to respond to matters pending litigation, as the station is involved in an ongoing lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve in 2019, after the station increased the number of jet flights by about 33%. A U.S. District Court judge ruled last September the station could keep its number of flights, though because it failed to accurately quantify overall noise impacts, it had to redo its environmental impact survey — which remains ongoing.

In the past, the noise from the island’s air station has shown to be so loud it travels underwater and can disrupt the habitats and lives of endangered southern resident orcas.

The latest UW study again draws attention to the flight racket, this time honing in on its serious risks for public health, Jacuzzi said.

According to the paper, about 74,300 people were at risk of adverse health effects, including annoyance and stress. Of those, about 41,000 had trouble sleeping, while about 8,000, most of whom lived near the aircraft landing strips, were at risk of hearing impairment over time, the study showed.

The researchers measured potential impacts by analyzing four weeks of acoustic and flight operations data collected by the Navy in 2020 and 2021, in addition to data collected by a private acoustics company and the National Park Service. The team then mapped noise exposure across the region to estimate how much noise specific communities were exposed to in an average year, and later brought in exposure-response models recommended by the World Health Organization to predict health outcomes, Jacuzzi said.

“Our bodies produce a lot of stress hormone response to noise in general, it doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is,” co-author Edmund Seto, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, said in a post. “But particularly if it’s this repeated acute noise, you might expect that stress hormone response to be exacerbated.”

What was really interesting, he said, was that researchers measured noise exposure levels that are “actually harmful for hearing.”

“Usually I only think of hearing in the context of working in factories or other really, really loud occupational settings,” Seto said. “But here, we’re reaching those levels for the community.”

In a video posted by UW, Whidbey Island resident Bob Wilbur describes the noise reverberating through the trees and shaking the windows in his home.

“It interrupts your day,” Wilbur, the current chair of the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve group, said in the post. “You’re unable to have a pleasant evening at home. You can’t communicate. You constantly try to organize your day around being gone when the jets are flying.”

Another island resident, Jane Monson, described in the video the noise feeling “like you’re in a war, like you’re about to get bombed.”

Despite years of disputes over the noise, the trainings at the station — which has been around since 1942 and received the Navy’s first Growler production aircraft in 2008 — are crucial, Navy spokesperson Michael Welding has said in the past.

As of 2020, the military embarked on about 2,300 flights per year over Olympic or 6.3 flights per day when averaged over a full year, Welding confirmed this week, noting flights generally happen during the workweek, not the weekend.

Since then, the Navy has launched a new transit route between the air station and the Olympic training areas, which Welding said is outside the boundaries of Olympic National Park and has reduced the level of military aircraft noise over it.

It’s still too loud, UW researchers contended in their report and a recent op-ed in The Seattle Times. In the op-ed, Jacuzzi and other study authors aimed to draw more attention to the sound of military aviation in general, which is “unlike any other source of noise,” they wrote.

In a separate UW paper from 2020, researchers found military flights were the largest cause of noise pollution on the Olympic Peninsula, also affected by the increase in training flights at the Whidbey Island station.

“It’s intense,” Jacuzzi said. “It has this rumbling, low-frequency energy, and that is a kind of sound that penetrates windows and shakes walls.”

In the op-ed, Jacuzzi and study co-authors urged the Navy to consider changes to its training operations and schedules — and by doing so, it could “demonstrate that the interests of national security need not come at the expense of protecting the public at home.”

“This isn’t a zero-sum game,” Jacuzzi said. “There’s a range of solutions to these public health impacts — that could be anything from altered flight paths to more strategic operational schedules to potentially avoiding sensitive periods or locations, like school hours and sleeping hours.”

Past research has shown noise pollution is a growing concern among environmental and public health experts, contributing to both accelerating effects of climate change and a range of worsening health impacts.

According to the World Health Organization, consistent evidence has confirmed noise exposure can harm children’s cognitive performance and long-term academic achievement. One 2013 paper concluded noise can have worse long-term impacts on children than adults when it comes to speech perception, listening comprehension, short-term memory, reading and writing.

More research has emerged that also links exposure to traffic noise to higher risks of cardiovascular disease, such as ischemic heart disease and heart failure — largely due to the increase in stress hormone levels, blood pressure and other changes brought on by the commotion.

Jacuzzi plans to continue his own research this year with a follow-up study that includes door-to-door interviews with Whidbey Island residents to collect details from their personal experiences, he said.

“We hope that the Navy will take the next step in building on top of the science and engaging in open conversations with the communities that are affected, and use those two things together to be able to devise effective mitigation actions moving forward,” Jacuzzi said.

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