The news last week that deaths from stroke, heart and circulatory disease are up to 20% higher in areas under the Heathrow with high levels of aircraft noise than in places with the least noise is startling. But is it true?
Dramatic findings, but true?
Within hours of the release of the report, Back Heathrow (http://www.backheathrow.org/), the Heathrow Airport funded body promoting the expansion of the airport, had countered by pointing out that just days earlier researchers had found that Richmond – right under the flight path – was the healthiest place in Britain. A survey showed that men in Richmond could expect to enjoy 70 years of healthy living (women 72). Wokingham, Surrey and Windsor – all places affected by aircraft noise – also featured high up in the list.
Both pieces of research were carried out by credible researchers. Can they be reconciled? I believe they can. Firstly, and most importantly, the researchers were looking at different things: it is quite possible to live in Richmond, Wokingham or Windsor and both expect to have 70 healthy years of life and have a 20% greater chance of dying of a stress-related illness.
And, secondly, the standing of the Heathrow flight path researchers – Imperial College – and the quality of their carefully-caveated research, covering 3.5 million people, makes the findings hugely important. This is why it was extensively covered in the media. So far, Governments have ignored all similar research which has shown a consistent link between aircraft noise – indeed noise generally – stress and ill-health. They didn’t deny the findings but presumably felt that some ill-health and early deaths was a price worth paying for the economic benefits aviation brought.
Influence Airports Commission?
It is too early to say whether this new research with its dramatic findings will suffer the same fate. What is certainly does do, though, is raise the stakes, particularly at this time when the Airports Commission is considering expansion of airports in London and the South East. Writing in the Independent the day after the research was released, Simon Calder argued, “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”
No wonder Back Heathrow was so quick to tweet its rebuttal.