Passengers aboard the first wave of flights descending over west London into Heathrow this morning may have health concerns – but only about their own well-being. They could fret about the short-term impact of a 14-hour flight from Singapore or Hong Kong to Britain, and the longer-term effects of disrupting circadian rhythms by crossing time zones faster than the speed of sunlight. They are, though, unlikely to think about the millions of people over whose homes and lives their Airbus or Boeing is rumbling.
Today’s findings in the British Medical Journal add another important dimension to the question of our age: how damaging is air travel? As every long-haul airline passenger knows, sleep deprivation is an unwelcome irritation. Now researchers say they have identified something much more serious: a “significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and cardiovascular health”. The risks appear to rise sharply for people living very close to a busy airport.
For those keen to see expansion, particularly at Heathrow, the report will prove more than an unwelcome irritation; if the findings are sustained and augmented, the airport expansion debate takes on a new character. Sir Howard Davies is the chairman of the body charged with solving the aviation capacity crunch in south-east England.
Two days ago, he revealed the Airport Commission’s work thus far. Sir Howard gave a meticulous exposition of the factors concerning his commission, from maintaining Britain’s global competitiveness to meeting the UK’s carbon emissions targets. He paid due regard to the concerns of local residents about noise and traffic.
But 48 hours ago a correlation between airport proximity and the risk of heart attacks or strokes was not in the public domain. Now that it is, the spectrum of harm from airports has extended from nuisance to a serious public health threat.