Airplane noise isn’t just a problem near airports

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Aircraft noise can travel far if there are no natural boundaries to stop it, and a few thousand feet in elevation can make a big difference in how loud a plane sounds on the ground.

Most people may assume that airplane noise only affects those who live near airports, but that isn’t accurate. In fact, airplane noise can affect those living many miles away. In the western Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks–approximately 40 miles from LAX–changes made by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rerouting planes arriving from the Pacific are creating problems for residents. Like those in other cities across the country affected by FAA flight path changes, the residents have appealed to their elected officials, in this case Rep. Julia Brownley, for help*.

The main impact on residents of Thousand Oaks is sleep disruption. Uninterrupted sleep is important for good health and normal daily function. We evolved from our vertebrate, mammalian, and primate ancestors in nature’s quiet. Sound was used to find food, avoid danger, and communicate. Humans cannot close our ears. Even small sounds were a warning of possible danger, e.g., the snap of a twig indicating an approaching predator or enemy. Because of this, sounds as quiet as 32-35 decibels–quieter than in a library–can cause microarousals as measured by EEG changes. These microarousals are in turn accompanied by increases in blood pressure and stress hormone levels.

I spoke about the adverse health effects of transportation noise on June 12 at the Institute for Noise Control Engineering meeting in Grand Rapids, MI, and then I flew to Zürich to speak at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise. My talks there were about different topics, but I attended several sessions about the adverse health effects of transportation noise. In Europe this body of knowledge is well known. The World Health Organization’s European Office wrote about this many years ago. The European Commission has directed member states to take remedial action. And in London, a draft Environmental Strategy deals with transportation noise.

Perhaps one day that research will be understood and accepted on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

*NOTE: Data-gathering serves a purpose when individual citizens share their data and concerns with organized groups that are already working on this issue. Here is the joint website of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the National Quiet Skies Coalition. This pair of groups are large, national, well-organized and are taking meaningful actions in Congress to address aircraft/airport noise by working directly with the FAA. Among the myriad members from many states, this caucus and coalition includes 12 members of Congress from California and 10 California community groups. Check these two sites to see if your member of Congress is involved and if there is a community group in your area. And click here to file a complaint with the FAA.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Comments (2)

  1. Larry Sullivan

    While hearing loss is a real tragedy, many of with it also benefit from not being impacted by the background noise. I remember the morning in the 1990s when I wore my new hearing aids. The first thing in the morning I heard with them was the background hum of the Interstate highway near me. All those years without that sound.

    1. GMB (Post author)

      I understand that one reason some people don’t wear the hearing aids they have is that they amplify everything, making it difficult to pick out that which the wearer wants to hear. But new technology can help. I’ve read that the hearing aid companies have added directional ability, but I don’t know how good that is. Two startups in the hearables world–Here One and IQbuds–offer smart wireless earbuds that allow you to balance the sound around you, blocking background noise while letting you increase sound in your foreground. That is, maybe there’s a way to give those who have hearing loss more control over their soundscape. Ideally, the background noise would be regulated away, but until or unless that happens, one hopes tech advances will offer some help.


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