A Safe Distance from the Airport
Real estate advertisements always highlight the best features of a property, and so it’s interesting that so many listings boast about homes that are “close to walking paths, shopping, and the airport.” For many potential homeowners, such proximity indeed seems an advantage. Need to pick up out-of-town guests? Ten minutes in the car takes you right to the terminal. Need to leave town in a hurry? A five-dollar Uber ride delivers you straight to Departures.
Given that there are 5,136 public airports in the US and over 14,000 private airports plus another 21,000 or so airports worldwide, a whole lot of people live within a twenty-mile radius of planes coming and going.12 Over 42,000 flights traverse the skies over the US daily, but other than occasionally seeing the lights overhead at night or noticing the crisscross vapor trails in the sky, most of us pay little attention. But that may be a mistake. If you live near an airport, a good deal more attention is probably warranted.
So, what gives? Well first of all, research shows that people who live near airports experience higher levels of respiratory and cardiac problems compared to the population at large. Carbon monoxide emissions are at least partly to blame, mostly due to the time airplanes spend taxiing and idling on the runway before takeoff or after landing, spewing out huge amounts of exhaust that lingers in the air.3 Airplanes, in fact, are one of the chief sources of air pollution in the US, and those living nearby bathe daily in a soup of toxins.
In a recent joint study by Columbia University and the University of California, scientists measured carbon monoxide levels at the 12 largest airports scattered throughout California, and then tracked rates of heart and lung disease among the six million nearby residents. They found that the incidence of asthma and respiratory diseases like COPD was, on average, 17 percent higher among those living within 6.2 miles of an airport compared to the population at large. Cardiac problems were nine percent more common among that same population, with the elderly and very young particularly at risk.
The thing is, the rates of carbon monoxide measured weren’t sky high. In fact, they were within the legal limits for air quality safety established by the Environmental Protection Agency, although higher than locales elsewhere. What’s the issue? The researchers believe that the established limits are far too liberal and suggest that the EPA would do well to reevaluate just what levels of CO emissions are actually safe to inhale. As the report states, “These health effects occur at levels of CO exposure far below existing EPA mandates, and our results suggest there may be sizable morbidity benefits from lowering the existing CO standard.”
Not that carbon monoxide is the only issue. Pollution levels within three square miles of an airport are typically 10 times higher than a bit farther out. Airplanes spew out other toxins including sulfur oxides, carbon dioxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Each of these pollutants brings its own array of problems multiplying the effects beyond cardiovascular and respiratory issues. VOCs, for instance, have been linked to neurological issues and kidney and liver damage, as well as to headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation.4 Pollution at the levels typical near airports has been linked to cancer, lymphoma, myeloid leukemia, depression, and more.
If poor air quality near airports isn’t enough reason to seek housing elsewhere, there’s also the noise pollution factor. Excessive noise exerts a negative influence on health for several reasons. First, when the noise occurs at night, it disturbs sleep. Also, noise causes the body to release stress hormones, which can negatively impact the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and even cholesterol levels. The more noise, the worse the effects, and airplanes are particularly noisy. For point of reference, ambient noise in a quiet rural area registers at around 30 decibels, on average. In a typical restaurant where there’s background music playing, you’ve got a 60-decibel level.5 Sixty decibels, by the way, sounds about half as loud as 70 decibels (volume doubles with every 10 decibels). With that in mind, a Boeing 737 jet registers at 90 decibels one mile away from landing. In other words, anyone living a mile from the airport suffers a whole lot of noise.
Numerous studies underline the negative consequences of living under a flight path. A study just published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine followed 420 people living near an airport in Greece and found that each 10 decibels of aircraft noise at night led to a 69 percent increase in the incidence of hypertension. In 2014, researchers found that kids living near Logan Airport in Boston had quadruple the normal rates of asthma, while adults in the same radius had twice the incidence of COPD.6 And then a 2013 study found a significant increase in hypertension and cardiac-related hospital admissions in communities surrounding 89 airports across the US.7 An earlier study at Heathrow Airport in London found a direct line between airport noise exposure and stroke and cardiovascular disease. And a handful of studies concluded that airport noise raises nervous system and cardiovascular levels even among children.8 In fact, a 2005 study published in The Lancet found that for every 10 decibels of increased noise pollution in the surroundings, reading levels for kids fell behind by two months, and comprehension faltered proportionately.
Given the evidence that airports destroy the health of those living in the surrounding areas, just how far away do you need to be to ensure you aren’t affected? Many sources suggest six miles, but a study out of the University of Southern California and the University of Washington found that particulate levels even ten miles away from LAX airport in Los Angeles were twice as high as levels farther away. Those levels continued to escalate in closer proximity. In the two-mile area east of the airport, pollution levels were 10 times higher than outside the affected region. The levels of pollution depended on whether the home was to the East or West of the airport, as flight paths tend to concentrate in particular directions. In other words, you can live near an airport but not be in direct line of flight paths, and that makes a difference. Those right under flight paths living five miles away might suffer more exposure than those just two miles away who are away from the major flight paths.
What can you do if you live close to the airport, under a flight path? Get a high-quality air filter, invest in a white-noise machine, and institute a regular program of full-body detoxification. And if you’re motivated, you can lobby your lawmakers to establish more realistic air pollution limits and to insist that aircraft manufacturers develop better sound-muffling equipment. Oh, and you can peruse real estate ads, unless you want to join John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton on the runway.
- 1. “Air Traffic by the Numbers.” Federal Aviation Administration. 22 February 2018. https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/by_the_numbers/
- 2. “Video: How Many Commercial Airports Are There in the World?” 11 August 2015. AeronewsTV.com. 22 February 2018. http://www.aeronewstv.com/en/lifestyle/in-your-opinion/2954-how-many-commercial-airports-are-there-in-the-world.html
- 3. Schlenker, Wolfram and Walker, Reed. “Airports, Air Pollution, and Contemporaneous Health.” July 2015. http://www.restud.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/MS17397manuscript.pdf
- 4. West, Larry. “What are t he Health Effects of Airport Noise and Pollution?” 17 March 2017. ThoughtCo. 23 February 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/health-effects-of-airport-noise-and-pollution-1204091
- 5. http://www.industrialnoisecontrol.com/comparative-noise-examples.htm
- 6. Perry, Susan. “Airport pollution may have been seriously underestimated, study suggests.” 2 June 2014. MinnPost. 23 February 2018. https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2014/06/airport-pollution-may-have-been-seriously-underestimated-study-suggests
- 7. Correia, Andrew, W. et al. ”Residential exposure to aircraft noise and hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases: multi-airport retrospective study.” 8 October 2013. British Medical Journal. 23 February 2018. http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f5561
- 8. West, Larry. “What are the Health Effects of Airport Noise and Pollution?” 12 March 2017. ThoughtCo. 23 February 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/health-effects-of-airport-noise-and-pollution-1204091