Photo credit: Shai Barzilay licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My parents raised me to be respectful of authority, but I was also taught that I had a responsibility to speak up when I saw something wrong.

When I was asked to submit written testimony to the Maryland General Assembly about proposed legislation (SB658 and HB1103) on creating the Maryland Aviation Infrastructure Impacts Commission to assess the impacts of aviation-related noise and pollution on Marylanders, I accepted.

As I prepared my testimony on the adverse health impacts of aircraft noise, I was struck by a critical disconnect between the incontrovertible scientific evidence linking aircraft noise to cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems and the Federal Aviation Administration’s inadequate noise exposure standards. In my testimony, I emphasized that aircraft noise is a serious health hazard, not simply “an annoyance,” as the FAA commonly refers to it. Annoyance, sleep disruption, and other stress responses are simply first line responses that set off a cascade of physiological events that lead to cardiovascular disease and increased mortality.

As I read publications funded by the FAA and the Department of Transportation, like Aviation Noise and Cardiovascular Health in the United States, I couldn’t help but notice two things. First, employees of both federal agencies are also co-authors. Second, these articles appear to use what I call “Merchants of Doubt” tactics in which noted scientists are pushed to soften their conclusions and cast doubt in the face of extensive scientific evidence. In this case, the FAA-sponsored publication created doubt where there isn’t any rational doubt that aircraft noise not only causes cardiovascular disease, but nighttime aircraft noise actually causes heart attacks!

It’s clear to me that the FAA is a “captured agency,” much more in thrall to aircraft manufacturers, like Boeing, than interested in protecting the health of the American public. That’s what the House Transportation Committee concluded in relationship to the Boeing 737 Max disaster in 2018. As John Cassidy, writer at The New Yorker bluntly stated, “[p]erhaps even more alarmingly, the report shows how the F.A.A., which once had a sterling reputation for independence and integrity, acted as a virtual agent for the company [Boeing] it was supposed to be overseeing.”

In contrast to the FAA’s standards, the World Health Organization’s standards on aircraft are much more stringent based on the strength of scientific evidence demonstrating risks to human health. In communications to the FAA and to its congressional overseers on the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I will be asking why the FAA didn’t reach the same conclusion as WHO did.

As my parents taught me when something is wrong, I spoke up, as clearly and forcefully as I could in my testimony. I hope legislators in Maryland, and in Washington, DC will recognize that aircraft noise is a health and public health hazard, literally killing their constituents.

You can access my testimony along with the testimony of my colleague, Jamie Banks, PhD, MSc, President of Quiet Communities. Please feel free to share them with your elected representatives.