Noise Pollution Is Hurting Your Heart

Live near an airport? All that noise is doing in your heart, never mind your sanity.

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Oct 11 2013, 3:00pm
Photo: elyob/Flickr

Chalk up another one in the minus column for noise pollution. Two new studies published in the British Journal of Medicine, conducted on different continents, have found that people living close to airports are at an increased risk for heart disease, due to the constantly elevated levels of noise they're subjected to. 

The first of the studies looked at 3.6 million people living near Heathrow Airport near London. After factoring out all other risk factors such as age, ethnicity and income, the researchers found that risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease all increased compared to the population at large. The increase was greatest for the 2 percent of the population who were exposed to the highest levels of both daytime and nighttime noise. 

The second of the studies looked at much broader swath of people: some six million people aged 65 or older living near 89 different airports across the United States. This study found that for zip codes where aircraft noise increased ambient noise levels by 10 decibels, there was a 3.5 percent higher rate of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease. Here too the increased risk was greatest for those people exposed to louder ambient noise levels, above 55 dB. This group had a 3.5 percent higher rate of hospital admission. Overall, 2.3 percent of all hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease among this demographic and location could be linked to exposure to aircraft noise. 

As is typical with this sort of research, more work is needed to drill down on exactly why aspect of the increased noise levels is causing the increased health risks. The researchers in the London study speculate that increased noise at night and the accompanying sleep disruption that this brings may be to blame, but further studies are needed. 

In an editorial that accompanied publication of the studies, Professor Stephen Stansfield of Queen Mary University London—a professor of psychology not attributed as author for either piece of research—concludes, "These studies provide preliminary evidence that aircraft noise exposure is not just a cause of annoyance, sleep disturbance, and reduced quality of life but may also increase morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease."

Professor Stansfield notes that urban planner need to take this evidence into account when siting any new airports or expanding existing ones in densely populated places.

The proposed third runway expansion of Heathrow Airport has been a contentious debate for some time, with the British aviation industry saying that an expansion of airport capacity in the Southeast of England is necessary to avoid "aviation gridlock", and an array of groups (climate campaigners, local residents, the Conservative party, and more) opposing it. 

This research surely adds more ammunition for those opposed. 

Though this research focused strictly on airports, its worth noting that the decibel levels identified as increasing cardiovascular health risk in the US study are lower than average noise levels across of all New York City, away from airports. 

A study dating to 2010 found that across 60 sites in Manhattan most daytime decibel readings topped 70 dB—a level which can cause hearing loss with sustained exposure. The loudest places? Along truck routes, such as First Avenue north of 14th street, Broadway in Inwood, as well as in Times Square and East Midtown. 

Which is all to say, with only a small leap from this research, the normal noise levels for people living in Manhattan, let alone those living near an airport, aren't just doing in your hearing, but perhaps your heart as well.