UK monitoring of aircraft noise ‘seriously underestimates’ disturbance to people’s health

Flight cacophony ‘more annoying’ than road or rail and we are becoming increasingly sensitive to it, research finds

Jane Dalton
Monday 27 January 2020 08:25 GMT
Heathrow airport wants to add a third runway but activists say noise affecting lives and health is underestimated
Heathrow airport wants to add a third runway but activists say noise affecting lives and health is underestimated (Getty)

The way aircraft noise is monitored in the UK “seriously underestimates” the disturbance it causes, research suggests.

Some European countries, such as the Netherlands, start measuring plane noise at 45 decibels (dB), but the UK starts it at 55dB – the minimum it is legally obliged to, which has caused needless disruption to people’s lives and health, the report says.

Countryside campaigners, who say lower levels are a better indicator of noise pollution, are calling for the government to make the monitoring more sensitive, which could have significant effects on decisions over airport planning.

It comes as airport expansion plans are being considered across the UK, including a new Heathrow runway, and as the government prepares a new aviation strategy.

The research, commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), is a central part of a new report, Flight Blight: the Social and Environmental Cost of Aviation Expansion.

“Research shows that aircraft noise is more ‘annoying’ than road or rail noise and that we are becoming increasingly sensitive to it,” the report says.

Mapping at lower levels would lead to action plans taking account of considerably more people, according to the new research, by aviation consultancy To70. The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for monitoring noise around airports and publishing information about its impact.

In 2018 the World Health Organisation recommended reducing aircraft noise levels to 45dB in the daytime and 40dB at night.

Using Gatwick airport as an example, the report says that applying more “appropriate” standards increased the area affected by aircraft noise five-fold.

Kia Trainor, the director of CPRE Sussex, said: “We are becoming more sensitive to low-level aircraft noise. For many people it is not just a minor annoyance: noise has been linked to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety and disturbed sleep.”

She told The Independent: “Research shows experiences of noise are not linear – lots of factors come into play.

“Even though planes are getting quieter people are becoming more sensitive to noise.”

A combination of factors could be responsible, she said, including people’s expectations of peace and quiet, trust in the aviation industry, the climate crisis and a rise in numbers of flights.

As well as reducing the noise-reporting threshold, the report recommends the government should commission independent research into the impact of aviation noise on health.

Noise has been linked to serious health issues 

Kia Trainor

It also calls for the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN) to have statutory powers so that communities’ distrust of the aviation industry is reduced.

And the report authors want aviation CO2 emissions to be included in the government’s net-zero greenhouse gas target and further aviation expansion to be ruled out on climate grounds.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We take the health impacts of aviation noise very seriously, which is why we established an independent commission to advise us on the best ways to reduce noise pollution.

“Since 2017 noise impacts must be considered across much larger areas and health impacts assessed when changes to flight paths are proposed.

“We have also been clear that expansion at Heathrow airport will not be allowed to proceed unless it complies with strict noise targets.”

The government has promised to review ICCAN’s powers within two years, including possibility “putting it on a statutory footing”.

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