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Stansted Airport: SSE's health advisor questions noise and pollution dangers to population

Stansted Airport. (9343305)
Stansted Airport. (9343305)

Opponents of 750 new homes at Bishop's Stortford South believe the site's location under a Stansted Airport flightpath will be detrimental to residents – and especially harmful to pupils of two new schools planned for the estate off Whittington Way. Professor Jangu Banatvala, a public health expert and Stop Stansted Expansion adviser, gives his view on airport growth...

Professor Jangu Banatvala (9343465)
Professor Jangu Banatvala (9343465)

Robert Koch (1843-1910), who won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his discovery of the cause of tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera, wrote: "The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague."

In October 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its environmental noise guidelines for the European region. There were also inputs from America, Asia and Australia. The recommendations were made by international experts in their field and all were peer reviewed.

WHO had emphasised that current targets are inadequate and out of date, and that new ones need to be incorporated in national policies. It also drastically reduced the thresholds of aircraft noise limits both during the day and, more importantly, an even more significant night-time noise reduction.

A previous WHO report, published in 1999, the recommendations of which are still extant, recommended that the health of the community should be put first when considering transport as adverse effects fall disproportionately on vulnerable groups, particularly children, the elderly and infirm. Furthermore, it stressed the importance of the 'polluter pays' principle.

The Department of Health also recommended that major industrial developments, for example airports, should have the benefit of a health impact assessment (HIA), which should be conducted independently.

The recent planning application which proposes to increase the number of flights at Stansted by 44% and passengers by 66%, compared with 2017, was stated not to have any environmental consequences. Although a HIA was carried out, it was done by RPS, a firm of environmental consultants, not only on behalf of the airport but paid for by the applicant itself – a scarcely transparent arrangement.

About three-quarters of the population now reside in areas where previously recommended night-time noise levels are exceeded, and if the proposals for Stansted are accepted, those living near the airport, particularly under flight paths, will experience even more noise pollution. This was emphasised by a number of residents local to Stansted Airport providing evidence at Uttlesford District Council's (UDC) planning committee meeting in November 2018 and council meeting earlier this month.

The importance of health did not seem to feature strongly in either of these meetings, although the planning committee was informed about the main findings of the recent WHO report during its meeting.

What are the adverse health effects of aviation noise which should be known to UDC's planning authorities?

Studies carried out jointly in the UK and European centres have shown that children in primary schools near airports experience reduced cognitive function and that this is worse for pupils who are second language learners or those who have language or retention disorders.

Teachers complain of continual interruptions, 'jet pause', and experiences near Heathrow have shown that even double glazing does not provide adequate insulation. Playing outside will not be much fun.

More recently, accumulated data from studies carried out not only in the UK but in various European centres have shown that aircraft noise, particularly at night, can have an adverse effect on cardiovascular disease including hypertension, ischaemic heart disease and stroke.

Night-time noise has a particularly adverse effect since it results in the release of stress hormones, increases blood pressure and experimentally has been shown to have an adverse effect on the lining of small blood vessels.

Although the recent WHO report recommendations involved environmental noise, much attention in both the lay and medical press is now focused on air pollution. Indeed, there may be a synergetic effect between noise and air pollution since both may cause damage by similar mechanisms. A study published last year among 2,000 London children showed that air pollution results in poor lung capacity, risking lifelong breathing disorders.

Measurements during the last 12 months in villages around Stansted Airport have shown that their population is experiencing levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) greater than the WHO recommended 40mcg/m3, and much of this is likely to result from road vehicles coming to and from Stansted Airport, public transport emissions and, of course, cargo freight.

In the past, considerable expertise and guidance were provided by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, but this has now been disbanded; perhaps it produced evidence which was unpalatable to governments.

The responsibility for airport planning is now in the hands of central as well as local government, but local government have a particularly important role and must appreciate that although as individuals we have responsibility for our own health with guidance from health professionals in relation to the avoidance of chronic diseases, we must rely on the guidance and input of local authorities like UDC for minimising the effect of environmental factors on health.

UDC must realise that it has a duty of care for the health of its population.

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