FAA’s DNL Noise Standards Allow Significant Health Risks to Communities Surrounding Airports

The Federal Aviation Administration last reviewed the technical bases for its noise policies in 1992.  The “day-night average sound level” (DNL), which is used by the FAA for establishing the “threshold of significant impact” under NEPA and the levels below which the FAA deems land uses to be compatible has been used without substantial change since 1978.  The provenance of DNL was a 1974 EPA report entitled Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety  (EPA 550/9-47-004).  In that report, the EPA concluded that the “day-night average sound level (DNL)” was the best metric to describe the effects of noise on humans.   Although the Federal Interagency Committee on Noise (FICAN) issued Federal Agency Review of Selected Airport Noise Analysis Issues in 1992, which reviewed the DNL, it concluded that “there are no new descriptors or metrics of sufficient scientific standing to substitute for the present DNL cumulative noise exposure metric. The methodology employing DNL as the noise exposure metric and appropriate dose-response relationships … to determine noise impacts on populations is considered the proper one for civil and military aviation scenarios in the general vicinity of airports.”

Much has changed since 1978 and 1992.  It is safe to say that the FAA’s policy no longer reflects the best scientific evidence of the effects of aircraft noise exposure.  And yet the FAA clings to Aviation Safety and Noise Abatement Act of 1979 ( 49 U.S.C. § 47501 et seq.) for its authority for determining that the cumulative noise energy exposure of individuals to noise resulting from aviation activities must be measured in terms of the day-night average sound level DNL in decibels.  The FAA has not moved from this position for almost 25 years.  This failure on the part of the FAA to update its policy undermines the trust that the public places in the FAA in their pursuit to understand noise exposure and its effects.

This is particularly true since substantial research done on the measurement and effect of aircraft noise on the communities surrounding airports has come from sources outside the United States.  For example, the Hypertension & Exposure to Noise Near Airports (HYENA) study evaluated the effects of aircraft noise on 4,861 persons residing near 7 European airports between 2002 and 2006.  The 2002 RANCH study from London studied the effect of aircraft and road traffic noise on 2,844 children’s cognition and health.  Both of these studies came out with rather startling results concerning the effect aircraft noise has on the quality of human life.  Also, WHO Europe issued “Night Noise Guidelines,” which were based on research done by the European Union.  This type of far-reaching study has largely been absent in the United States.

Recent research suggests that current standards used by the FAA are outdated and underestimate the significant health risks posed by aircraft noise.   The current understanding of the health effects of aircraft noise goes beyond mere annoyance and sleep disturbance, which the antiquated DNL protocols were meant to address.  The new research shows a strong correlation between aircraft noise and significant, serious health outcomes, such as hypertension and heart disease.  Four studies from Europe have shown this connection:

  1. Haralabidis AS, Dimakopoulou K, Velonaki V, Barbaglia G, Mussin M, Giampaolo M, Selander J, Pershagen G, Dudley ML, Babisch W, Swart W, Katsouyanni K, Järup L; for the HYENA Consortium. Can exposure to noise affect the 24 h blood pressure profile? Results from the HYENA study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2010 Jun 27.
  2. Haralabidis AS, Dimakopoulou K, Vigna-Taglianti F, Giampaolo M, Borgini A, Dudley ML, Pershagen G, Bluhm G, Houthuijs D, Babisch W, Velonakis M, Katsouyanni K, Jarup L; for the HYENA Consortium. Acute effects of night-time noise exposure on blood pressure in populations living near airports. Eur Heart J. 2008 Feb 12.
  3. Jarup L, Babisch W, Houthuijs D, Pershagen G, Katsouyanni K, Cadum E, Dudley M-L, Savigny P, Seiffert I, Swart W, Breugelmans O, Bluhm G, Selander J, Haralabidis A, Dimakopoulou K, Sourtzi P, Velonakis M, VignaTaglianti F, on behalf of the HYENA study team. Hypertension and Exposure to Noise near Airports – the HYENA study. Environ Health Perspect 2008; 116:329-33.
  4. Jarup L, Dudley ML, Babisch W, Houthuijs D, Swart W, Pershagen G, Bluhm G, Katsouyanni K, Velonakis M, Cadum E, Vigna-Taglianti F for the HYENA Consortium. Hypertension and exposure to noise near airports (HYENA) – Study design and noise exposure assessment. Environ Health Perspect 2005; 113:1473-8.

This is not to say that there has not been any research done in the United States on this issue.  In March 2007, for example, Lisa Goines and Louis Hagler published their article entitled “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague” in the Southern Medical Journal.  While it did not concentrate solely on aircraft noise, the article concluded that:

[n]oise produces direct and cumulative adverse effects that impair health and that degrade residential, social, working, and learning environments with corresponding real  (economic) and intangible (well-being) losses. It interferes with sleep, concentration, communication, and recreation. The aim of enlightened governmental controls should be to protect citizens from the adverse effects of airborne pollution, including those produced by noise. People have the right to choose the nature of their acoustical environment; it should not be imposed by others.

The FAA and airport sponsors often impose the nature of their “acoustical environment” on the citizens of the surrounding communities, rather than having the citizens choose for themselves.

In addition several “findings” have been issued by governmental or quasi-governmental sources.  The Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise (FICAN) has issued two findings:  FICAN Recommendation for use of ANSI Standard to Predict Awakenings from Aircraft Noise (2008) and Findings of the FICAN Pilot Study on the Relationship between Aircraft Noise Reduction and Changes in Standardized Test Scores (2007). Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction (PARTNER), a collaboration among the FAA, NASA and TransportCanada, issued in July 2010, its Review of the Literature Related to Potential Health Effects of Aircraft Noise, (prepared by Hales Swift).  That review concluded that “[p]otentially serious health outcomes have been identified in studies involving transportation noise exposure in a population. These include heart disease and hypertension and the observed effects seem to be related especially to nighttime noise exposure although similar daytime exposure effects have also been identified.”  PARTNER 2010, p.62.  PARTNER has also issued several other reports:

  1. Sonic Boom and Subsonic Aircraft Noise Outdoor Simulation Design Study. Victor W. Sparrow, Steven L. Garrett. A PARTNER Project 24 report. May 2010. Report No. PARTNER-COE-2010-002.
  2. Passive Sound Insulation: PARTNER Project 1.5 Report. Daniel H. Robinson, Robert J. Bernhard, Luc G. Mongeau. January 2008. Report No. PARTNER-COE-2008-003.
  3. Vibration and Rattle Mitigation: PARTNER Project 1.6 Report. Daniel H. Robinson, Robert J. Bernhard, Luc G. Mongeau. January 2008. Report No. PARTNER-COE-2008-004.
  4. Low Frequency Noise Study. Kathleen Hodgdon, Anthony Atchley, Robert Bernhard. April 2007. (Report No. PARTNER-COE-2007-001) PARTNER Project 1, Low Frequency Noise Study, final report.
  5. Land Use Management and Airport Controls: A further study of trends and indicators of incompatible land use. Kai Ming Li, Gary Eiff. September 2008. Report No. PARTNER-COE-2008-006.
  6. En Route Traffic Optimization to Reduce Environmental Impact: PARTNER Project 5 Report. John-Paul Clarke, Marcus Lowther, Liling Ren, William Singhose, Senay Solak, Adan Vela, Lawrence Wong. July 2008. Report no. PARTNER-COE-2008-005.
  7. Land Use Management and Airport Controls: Trends and indicators of incompatible land use. Kai Ming Li, Gary Eiff, John Laffitte, Dwayne McDaniel. December 2007. (Report No. PARTNER-COE-2008-001) PARTNER Project 6 final report.

Thus, there is no shortage of relevant, topical information for the FAA to use in assessing the health risks and impacts of noise on the communities surrounding airports.  It is readily apparent that the current system does not fully account for the increased health risks communities surrounding airports are subject to due to the increased noise levels.  FAA needs to re-evaluate its noise modeling and insist that health risks to the surrounding communities be assessed prior to any airport receiving federal funds for any expansion that will result in an increase in aviation operations. No longer should it be sufficient for the FAA to  state that because the noise levels are below 65 DNL that human health is protected.

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One Response to FAA’s DNL Noise Standards Allow Significant Health Risks to Communities Surrounding Airports

  1. Pingback: ICAO Says It Is Making Progress on New Aircraft CO2 and Noise Standards | Aviation and Airport Development News

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