Living under a flight path can seriously damage your health. German researchers have discovered that people who are exposed to jet noise have a substantially increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease. The findings are bound to provide further ammunition to anti-airport campaigners and make uncomfortable reading for world leaders at this week's climate summit in Copenhagen.
According to the unpublished study, commissioned by Germany's Federal Environment Agency, men who are exposed to jet noise have a 69% higher risk of being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease. Women living under flight paths fare even worse, logging a 93% higher rate of hospitalization with cardiovascular problems, compared with their counterparts in quiet residential areas. The study found that women who are exposed to jet noise (of about 60 decibels) during the day are 172% more likely to suffer a stroke.
The report, due to be published in January, is based on the analysis of data from public health insurers that were drawn from more than 1 million Germans ages 40 and over who live near Cologne-Bonn Airport in western Germany. "These figures are worrying. It's quite clear that living near an airport is very dangerous for your health," says Eberhard Greiser, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at Bremen University. "Jet noise is more dangerous than any other kind of road-traffic noise or rail noise because it is especially acute and sharp and it induces stress hormones."
People living close to Cologne-Bonn Airport also tended to suffer from psychological illnesses. "There was a higher incidence of depression among women who live near the airport," says Jens Ortscheid of the Federal Environment Agency. "This report should come as a warning signal to all governments and authorities that are planning to expand airports there are serious health effects which need to be considered." Ortscheid says the report is in line with previous studies on the health effects of jet noise.
In a separate study commissioned by the local Bonn authorities, Greiser discovered that women near Cologne-Bonn Airport had an increased risk of developing breast cancer and leukemia. His research found that women who are exposed to 60 decibels of jet noise at night are twice as likely to contract breast cancer. "It seems women are more sensitive to jet noise than men, but I would advise everyone to think twice about living near an airport because it's not just aircraft noise which can be deadly; aircraft emissions are also dangerous," says Greiser.
That's not what the proponents of schemes to expand airport capacity wish to hear. In the U.K., the government faces strong opposition to its plans to build a third runway and sixth terminal at the congested Heathrow Airport in London. In February, campaigners are set to mount a legal challenge against the scheme in London's high court, saying the consultation process was flawed and the plans could prevent Britain from meeting its commitments to lower carbon emissions.
German authorities face similar obstacles in their struggle to win consent to boost the capacity of airports in Berlin and Frankfurt. The expansion of Schönefeld Airport, in the southern outskirts of Berlin, has already drawn fire from environmental campaigners and residents who are demanding a ban on night flights. The new international airport called Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt, after the former German Chancellor is due to be completed by October 2011 and will be the capital city's main hub, catering up to 27 million passengers. That means over two years, hospitals near the new airport can expect a rise of about 5,000 patients suffering from cardiovascular disease, including 1,350 men and women with a stroke, if Greiser's predictions are accurate.
Plans to expand Frankfurt's airport are also controversial. In August, a court in the state of Hesse gave a green light for the expansion of the airport but recommended imposing tougher restrictions on nighttime flights to protect residents from aircraft noise. The German airliner Lufthansa has launched legal action against the night-flight curbs, saying they threaten its freight business. But the local Green Party has renewed its calls for an outright ban on night flights, and the legal battle is set to drag on.
"The new airport at Schönefeld is crucial for the Berlin economy, as it'll provide up to 40,000 new jobs," Ralf Kunkel, a spokesman for Berlin Airports' Authority, tells TIME. "By closing all the inner-city airports in Berlin, we are relieving tens of thousands of Berliners from the perils of aircraft noise, and so there's a positive ecological balance," he says.
Greiser is convinced his report provides unequivocal evidence of the health risks associated with jet noise. "When it comes to expanding airports, governments and the courts all over the world will have to weigh the benefits of commercial interests against the danger to public health," he says. "How many additional diseases is society prepared to accept?"