Is Living Near an Airport Dangerous for Your Health?


Nothing I ever wrote provoked quite as many hostile responses as my suggestion in an article in Belgium that rock music of all kinds was a terrible environmental pollutant and ought to be strictly controlled, like car exhaust or industrial effluent. I also suggested that its agitating effect upon youth was a cause alike of much bad behavior and many car accidents. Moreover, in the future there will be an epidemic of well-merited deafness. The young were particularly infuriated.


Considering the awfulness of noise as a destroyer of quality of life, its effects on health have been comparatively little studied. Some time ago, however, it was discovered that those living near a major airport, Schiphol in Amsterdam, and subjected to aircraft noise had higher blood pressure than those who lived in its absence. Two papers in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal, one from Britain and one from America, confirm and extend this observation.

The American paper analyzed the admission rates to hospital for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke of those who lived near airports and those who did not. They analyzed the data from 89 airports. They found that those exposed to 10 decibels extra of aircraft noise had a 3.5 percent increased admission rate for such diseases, and they estimated that overall 2.3 percent of all admissions for such disease were attributable to aircraft noise.

The British paper analyzed hospital admission rates for the same diseases in the geographical area around Heathrow Airport, the busiest long-haul international airport in the world (and the worst, in my experience). The authors controlled the results for such possible confounders as air pollution and road traffic noise; they found that those exposed to the highest levels of daytime noise had a 25 percent increased rate of stroke and a 20 percent increased rate of coronary artery disease. The authors warned, however, that they had not controlled for all possible relevant confounders, and therefore, in effect, that their results must be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.



Nevertheless, the bulk of the evidence so far suggests that aircraft noise is not good for health. The same is true of road traffic noise. Previous studies have found that the chances of having a heart attack are nearly 50 percent greater if you are exposed to an excess of road traffic noise. Death rates from such heart attack are also greater.

The mechanism by which the effect is produced is not fully known. It seems likely, though it has not been proved, that the disturbance of sleep by night-time noise is yet worse than day-time noise, for disturbed sleep is known to be associated statistically with cardiovascular disease. Even day-time noise alone raises the blood pressure, however, which is also associated with cardiovascular disease.

The studies from America, Britain and elsewhere are called “ecological,” that is to say they take populations as they find them. Since whole populations are always exposed to an immense number of possibly relevant factors for which ecological studies of them have not controlled, it is not possible to prove causation by these means. Moreover, if you study enough factors then some of them will be associated with the disease in which you are interested. I remember a study years ago that purported to show that eating green potatoes might cause spina bifida.


Still, aircraft noise is horrible even if it does not cause heart attack or stroke, that is to say there is an aesthetic argument against it. Personally, I look forward to studies of the effect of rock music on cardiovascular disease. I am sure that there is a correlation.


images courtesy shutterstock / Steve Mann / Anatoly Tiplyashin


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