26th June 2019

British Medical Journal publishes article by SSE experts

Last week (18 June) the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a leading article on the health impacts of aviation noise co-authored by two of Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE)’s expert advisers and distinguished German cardiologist, Professor Thomas Műenzel of the University of Mainz.

The SSE experts were Professor Jangu Banatvala, a resident of Henham, who advises SSE on the health impacts of aircraft noise and pollution, and Martin Peachey, a Takeley resident whose expertise is in the field of aircraft noise impacts. Both have been members of the SSE Executive Committee for many years.

The article, entitled “The harms to health caused by aviation noise require urgent action“, drew heavily upon the World Health Organisation’s (‘WHO’) new Guidelines on Environmental Noise published in October 2018. These new WHO Guidelines, which took five years to complete and were compiled by worldwide leading experts, set out specific recommendations to safeguard the health of the population at risk from aviation noise impacts. The following is a summary of some of the key points in the BMJ article.

The 2018 WHO Guidelines need to be considered in the context of the earlier WHO ‘Charter on Transport, Environment and Health’ which emphasises that the health of the community must come first when considering transport because adverse environmental effects fall disproportionately on the vulnerable, particularly children, the infirm and the elderly. The WHO Charter also emphasises the principle of “polluter pays” and it has been adopted by all EU countries including the UK.

In line with the requirements of the WHO Charter, the Department of Health recommended that an independent health impact assessment (HIA) should be carried out prior to the approval of any planning application for airport expansion. This was intended to ensure that the health of the local population was not put at risk by commercial pressures in pursuing economic benefits.  However, this seems to have had a minimal effect since, in practice, little notice has been taken of it when planning airport expansion and introducing airspace changes. HIAs have lacked transparency and independence as they have mostly been undertaken by airport operators [as in the case of the recent Stansted Airport planning application].

There has been a reluctance to protect the health of the population in the face of commercial pressures pursuing economic benefits. The 2018 WHO report highlighted studies conducted in primary schools near airports where children are subject to high levels of aircraft noise where there was shown to be a negative effect on their reading and learning. Studies near Heathrow have shown that double glazing classrooms is insufficient for noise insulation.  Additionally, recent studies in West London have shown that atmospheric pollution results in diminished lung development among children.

Aviation noise should not be considered in isolation. Atmospheric pollution engendered by a marked increase in road traffic in the vicinity of airports is likely to act in conjunction with aviation noise to induce pulmonary disease in children experiencing low air quality.

Also of major importance, but only recently highlighted, are the findings from studies conducted in Europe and the UK which have shown that aircraft noise has substantial effects on cardiovascular disease including hypertension, ischaemic heart disease, heart failure and stroke.  Aviation noise particularly at night causes increased blood pressure as stress hormone levels rise.  Recently published scientific literature on the effect on cardiovascular disease needs to be brought to the attention of health authorities.

The 2018 WHO report concludes that current government policy and targets are inadequate and out of date, and that new targets need to be established and incorporated in national policies.

A major recommendation is that the threshold aircraft noise limits are reduced to 45dB Lden during the day and 40dB Lnight at night compared to the previous WHO guidance of 55dB and 45dB respectively. These recommendations present a significant challenge for the aviation industry [not least in relation to Stansted Airport where current noise impacts are well in excess of the new WHO Guidelines].

Government departments responsible for Transport and the Environment have a major role to play but, in relation to environmental factors such as noise and atmospheric pollution, input is also needed from the Department of Health whose voice has been somewhat muted to date. A stronger lead is required.

Mitigation strategies ought to be a joint approach from both central and local governments. However, decisions relating to airport development are often left to local authorities who are unlikely to have the necessary resources or expertise, and may also be experiencing financial constraints.

The evidence underpinning the 2018 WHO Guidelines is loud and clear and should be the catalyst for revised policies and actions to ensure there is an equitable balance between economic benefit and the health and wellbeing of communities. The cost and long-term consequences of inaction will be considerable.

As the WHO report stresses, noise is a major adverse environmental factor and atmospheric pollution is now being increasingly recognised.  Local authorities involved in airport planning decisions must scrutinise the WHO report carefully and take account of its recommendations since they have an overriding duty of care for the population they serve.


  1. The link for the British Medical Journal article is https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2019/06/18/the-harms-to-health-caused-by-aviation-noise-require-urgent-action/
  2. The link to the 2018 WHO report is http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/noise/publications/2018/environmental-noise-guidelines-for-the-european-region-2018



Campaigning to ensure Stansted Airport's authorised operations stay below harmful limits