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Study ties airport noise to heart risk in people 65 and older

A large passenger jet passes over the home

A large passenger jet passes over the home of Mary-Grace Tomecki Thursday, May 1, 2014, one of the homes and streets in Floral Park directly in the path of jets landing at JFK airport's runway 22L. Tomecki has been working for years to get officials at the FAA and the Port Authority, which operates the airport, to reduce aircraft noise. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Two women who live miles from area airports -- one in Nassau and the other in Queens -- share a problem: sleep deprivation they say is caused by airplane noise.

Elaine Miller of Malverne, and Kimberly Elorza of Bayside, Queens, who live about six miles from Kennedy Airport and about four miles from LaGuardia Airport, respectively, have been unable to get a good night's rest in recent years.

"When I'm constantly being bombarded for hours with noise, my heart pounds and my blood pressure goes up," said Miller, 62. "People can't live like this. It affects your whole being."

Elorza, 56, said each time she hears planes "my eyes pop open. I get stressed and the more they fly over, the more stressed out I get. I'm so wound up and jittery I can't sleep."

Residents who live with a constant barrage of aircraft noise over time are not merely dealing with a nuisance that spoils a summer barbecue. There are a host of disorders -- including sleep deprivation and hypertension -- that researchers have linked to prolonged noise exposure.

For example, a nationwide study conducted by scientists at Harvard University School of Public Health and at Boston University School of Public Health found that people 65 and older who live near airports and under flight paths have a higher risk of being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease. For every 10-decibel increase in airplane noise, the researchers found that hospital admission rates increased 3.5 percent.

"Our study emphasizes that interventions that reduce noise exposures could reduce cardiovascular risks among people living near airports," said one of the authors, Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at the Boston public health school.

The study, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and published in the British Medical Journal last October, is significant for two reasons. It included a population sample of 6 million older adults, or 15 percent of the U.S. population of older people, and 89 major U.S. airports.

The researchers obtained 2009 billing claims from the Center for Medicare Services, the federal health insurance program that covers some 90 percent of older Americans.

It's not known whether Kennedy and LaGuardia airports were included in the study. As part of their agreement with the FAA, which provided the 2009 aircraft noise data, the scientists agreed not to name the individual airports.


New air traffic patterns

For the past few years the FAA has been redesigning the airspace over New York's airports and preparing for the arrival of a satellite-based navigation system, called NextGen, which is supposed to increase capacity by allowing planes to fly closer to each other.

The reshaping of flight patterns and a spike in air traffic on some runways have prompted Nassau and Queens residents living near the airports and under the flight paths to complain about noise pollution.

At Kennedy Airport, for example, Nassau residents living under the landing path of Runway 22L, which saw a nearly 36 percent uptick in overnight arrivals between 2012 and 2013, filed 1,315 noise complaints from June 2012 to January 2013.

The FAA measures noise by taking the average of all sounds emitted by planes in a 24-hour period, with greater weight given to aircraft noise at night. The measurement is called a Day-Night Average Noise Level (DNL), expressed in decibels (dB).


Heart incidents and noise

Researchers found that older adults who live in neighborhoods where aircraft noise levels exceeded a DNL of 55 dB had an elevated cardiovascular admission rate compared with those who live in communities with noise levels below 55 dB, even after the scientists made adjustments for demographic factors, air pollution and proximity to roadways. But researchers found no elevated cardiovascular admission rate among older residents living in areas where aircraft noise levels reached a DNL of 50-55 dB and those living in areas where noise levels were less than 50 dB.

Of the 6 million residents studied, 23 percent were exposed to noise greater than DNL of 55 dB, but this group accounted for half the hospitalizations, according to the scientists.

Some Nassau residents in Woodmere and Cedarhurst, and Queens residents in Laurelton, Springfield Gardens and Arverne live in neighborhoods where the noise levels reach a DNL of 65 dB, according to noise contour maps provided by the Port Authority, which manages the airports. No information was available on where in Nassau and Queens decibel levels were between DNL of 55 dB and 65 dB.

For some people, noise can trigger a sudden release of stress hormones, which may lead to spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Their bodies perceive noise, even at levels that aren't harmful to hearing, as a danger signal.

"When you're not sleeping and you have noise on top of that, it increases your stress hormone, leading to inflammation and artery plaque, which [can] lead to heart attack," she said.

The study is the largest of its kind and its findings echoed what smaller studies had found at other airports, including Heathrow in London. Researchers found that residents who were exposed to the highest level of aircraft noise were 10 percent to 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized for stroke and heart disease, compared with those who were exposed to the lowest level.

Chronic stress, no matter what the cause, leaves the body feeling as though it's under assault, Steinbaum said. It increases the risk of health problems, including heart disease, anxiety and sleep disruption.


Feeling the effects

Miller and Elorza don't suffer from cardiovascular disease, but the women said airplane noise nonetheless wreaks havoc on their mental and physical health.

On most nights, Miller, who teaches the deaf and hard of hearing at a middle school, said she gets only about four hours of sleep. The jets start flying over her house around dinnertime, sometimes stopping around 2 a.m.

Elorza and her husband, Frank, 54, said they moved to Bayside 16 years ago to get away from the car alarms in their old neighborhood that went off day and night.

There were airplanes flying overhead in their current area during those first 15 years, the Elorzas said, but they were infrequent and the jets were flying higher than they do now.

Before bedtime, Kimberly Elorza tries reading or working on Sudoku puzzles. "Without a good night's sleep I am not operating at 100 percent," she said. "I am tired all the time."

Both women want the FAA to disperse the air traffic differently so they and others living under the current flight paths don't bear the brunt of the noise pollution.

"Who owns the sky? The government? They just took over the airspace," Miller said. "We bought a home. We have a right to enjoy our home the way we bought it."

The FAA is involved in "several" research projects that look at the impact of aircraft noise on neighboring communities, said Hank Price, an agency spokesman. He did not disclose details.

"The FAA will use the results of this study to guide our ongoing research efforts to improve our understanding of potential airport noise health effects," Price said.

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