3rd March 2003

Health Impacts of Airport Expansion will reach Far and Wide

The health of children, the elderly and chronically sick across Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire would be severely compromised, not least as a result of asthma and heart-related problems, if plans to expand Stansted Airport went ahead, Public Health Minister Hazel Blears MP has been told at a House of Commons meeting.

Those in the immediate vicinity of Uttlesford and East Hertfordshire (especially Bishop’s Stortford) would be particularly badly affected by the noise and pollution which would result from the addition of between one and three extra runways at the airport. So too would those living in Harlow and Sawbridgeworth and as far afield as Braintree, Witham and Halstead, Chelmsford, South Cambridgeshire and Epping Forest.

The Ministerial briefing was undertaken by a delegation of senior medical professionals including Professor Jangu Banatvala, chairman of the Stop Stansted Expansion health committee and acknowledged expert in clinical virology. He was accompanied by Uttlesford consultant in public health medicine Lizzie Shires who is also a GP, and David Barron, Chairman of Uttlesford Primary Care Trust. Sir Alan Haselhurst MP who had arranged the meeting at the request of Stop Stansted Expansion was also present. Professor Banatvala explained that concerns centred on anomalies that suggest the Department for Transport has grossly underestimated the number of people who would be adversely affected by expansion.

While the government has predicted that 80,000 people would be seriously disturbed by noise if three extra runways are built, the levels may well be ten times this, at over three quarters of a million people if World Health Organisation recommendations endorsed by the European Union and shortly to become UK law are applied. The medical implications are huge and the Department for Health’s help is therefore being sought in order that proper health impacts assessments (shortly to be renamed Integrated Policy Appraisals) are carried out before the aviation White Paper appears later this year.

The implications of the government’s miscalculations would be very serious for health, especially for such vulnerable groups as schoolchildren, the elderly and chronic sick in the event of expansion, Professor Banatvala explained. A number of globally recognised studies by such august bodies as the World Health Organisation and the Dutch equivalent of Britain’s Medical Research Council have already proved the damaging impact of constant exposure to airport noise and pollution.

Increased admissions to hospital and deaths from cardio-vascular disease are a consequence of airport-related pollution, and there is considerable concern about the increase in asthma among children in urban areas. However, the Professor told the Minister, the Department for Transport had taken no account of these whatsoever. The Department for Health urgently needed to take this on board and introduce some joined up thinking across government departments to resolve the situation.

Professor Banatvala stressed that it was time for the Department for Health to take a fuller role in determining the real impact of expansion on public health and undertake a full health impact assessment within up to seven Primary Care Trusts which would be affected by major expansion of Stansted Airport. This should also take account of the likely need to build and staff an extra district general hospital, together with at least 100 extra GPs to manage the increased health demands across the region which would be needed with three extra runways.

“The Department for Transport appears to have been rather negligent,” Professor Banatvala, commented. “If those responsible for preparing the expansion proposals didn’t read either the WHO or Schipol Airport study, they should have. And if they did, there is no excuse for their findings not to have been incorporated into the plans.”

Hazel Blears made it clear that she felt the meeting had resulted in a new awareness of the problems faced and that she was sympathetic to the problems discussed, not least since expansion will affect such a large section of the region. The health delegation was, she said, “pushing at an open door” as far as her Department was concerned, even though it would ultimately be her colleagues in the Department for Transport who would make the final recommendations about expansion in its aviation White Paper later this year.

Whilst agreement has yet to be secured for a full health impact assessment, the Minister did ­ helpfully ­ suggest that a further meeting to discuss concerns in more detail be held between Professor Banatvala and Senior Medical Officer in the Department of Health, Dr Robert Maynard. This is in line with the fact that protection the health of vulnerable groups is the cornerstone of high quality public health medicine and is a major responsibility of the Government.

Professor Banatvala stated that had he been asked to examine the Department of Transport’s consultation document as a report or thesis, he would have rejected it since it lacked the scientific precision expected of a major government department. To proceed as outlined in the consultation documents would ignore the considerable investment in health and education which has already been made in Britain.

Government proposals for expanding Stansted would, if implemented, mean the airport would grow from nearly 16m passengers per year as at present to 129m by 2030, with a fivefold increase in the number of planes ­ including 270 jumbo jets and double decker airbuses ­ taking off and landing at the airport every day. It would be like creating the equivalent of two Heathrow’s with open countryside eaten up at an alarming rate to provide an enlarged airport, warehousing, hotels, houses and roads. Almost a quarter of a million extra cars per day would travel to the airport with even one extra runway compared to the 40,000 per day at the moment.

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