Airport-Related Noise Exposure in the Town of Winthrop – not just an Annoyance!
The following letter was sent to the Town Council, Town Manager, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo and Congresswoman Katherine Clark
The Winthrop Board of Health has recently received a number of alarming reports, particularly from residents of Winthrop’s Point Shirley Neighborhood in Precinct 3, stating significant and concerning noise exposure-related health concerns in conjunction with a noticeable increase in Logan Airport airplane departures using Runway 9/27 during the last 12 months.
The use of this runway and its flight path for arrivals and departures leads to planes flying at low altitude (often within 500 feet) and directly passing above Winthrop’s Point Shirley Neighborhood. This air traffic increase appears to affect not only overall numbers of departures, but, particularly with implementation of RNAV, Massport’s Precision Navigation System, also departure frequency. These frequent and low altitude planes lead to quite significant noise exposures well beyond the 65dB limit considered safe for humans, and often multiple peak exposures beyond 100dB within minutes, particularly during peak departure times. This becomes an even more unbearable situation when FAA-regulated altitude limits for airplane traffic above residential neighborhoods are violated (i.e. < 400ft), for which allegations exist based on FlightMonitor data, and when such departures, as often the case, take place well into the night (until 1:30 a.m. or later) or start early in the morning (sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m.). Moreover, this has at times been encountered for stretches of several days or even weeks, without significant breaks or rerouting of departures to other runways. This traffic is likely to increase even more, once Terminal E and Terminal C expansion projects are completed, and NEXTGEN, the FAA’s action plan to modernize the national airspace system, goes into effect.
However, our concerns are not based on pure annoyance and the frequently cited “Winthrop Pause”: associated with these frequent and low altitude plane departures with extreme peak noise exposure of 80dB and higher, residents report substantial sleep disruption, even with windows and doors closed, hearing problems (development of tinnitus and sensorineural hearing loss, in one case in a teenager) and other health issues, such as high blood pressure and/or high heart rates, and difficulty concentrating and functioning at school or at work. Many families with young children also reside in this neighborhood, making this an even more pressing and highly concerning public health issue for infants, toddlers and school-age children with even higher healthy sleep requirements.
It is important to mention in this context, that the health effects of air and noise pollution cannot be easily separated in scientific studies, but are thought to be at least additive. Particle pollution has been linked to asthma and COPD, and there is abundant evidence in the medical literature that pollutants such as volatile compounds as well as certain small particles may be associated with higher rates of certain cancers. Furthermore, both particle and noise pollution are at particularly high levels at low flying altitude (i.e. below 400feet) and during departure, making Winthrop without a doubt one of the most severely affected neighborhoods – and possibly the single most severely affected neighborhood – in the Commonwealth. Thus, as an important stakeholder, the debilitating effects of noise and air pollution on our community in particular should receive high attention and consideration during any airport-related decision-making processes on town, state and federal level.
Many research studies have examined and definitively proven the debilitating effect of both sustained and frequent high peak noise exposure on human health. Increased cardio-metabolic health risk has been reported by both US and European researcher groups; this includes activation of the body’s stress response with high stress hormone levels (such as cortisol and adrenaline), high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose (diabetes) and elevated blood cholesterol – all of these are known and important risk factors for the development of cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis, stroke and myocardial infarction. In children, the disastrous effect of repeated and ongoing noise exposure, particularly during the night and combined with sleep deprivation, on cognitive performance and development cannot be stressed enough. More relevant for our local area, at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Heart Association, a new report was published on the association of high ambient noise on the body’s stress response and resulting increased cardiovascular risk by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, specifically with respect to transportation-related noise in the Boston area.
Based on all these facts and reports, noise pollution is very likely to have a much higher impact on our population’s health than was ever anticipated, or has ever been acknowledged by Massport. This is particularly concerning given the recent increased take-offs above our town, and the fact that Massport’s health and environmental assessment only uses noise levels that are averaged rather than peak exposures for the generation of noise contours (see Massport 2016 EDR). Point Shirley lies well within the 65dB average noise contour, and residents have reported peak noise far beyond that figure. Repeat peak noise exposures of above 80-100dB, as are frequent in the Point Shirley Neighborhood, are significantly associated with hearing loss. Even long-term and repeated exposure to much lower noise levels (50dB and beyond), lower than those acknowledged by Massport, contributes to the above mentioned public health concerns such as insomnia, heart disease, ADHD, learning problems and others.
From our perspective, environmental noise constitutes a significant public health threat. Health effects of environmental noise are proven to be manifold and serious. It is evident to the Winthrop Board of Health, that, due to Winthrop’s extremely close proximity to the airport, our town must be particularly exposed to both noise and air pollutants. Moreover, given Massport’s expansion and FAA’s modernization plans, this discussion is both timely and highly relevant to our town. Unfortunately, at recent Massport CAC and other public/community forums, little to no official representation by Winthrop was present, contributing to a concerning lack of open discussion and acknowledgment of current and future airport-related public health risks for Winthrop residents.
Therefore, the Winthrop Board of Health, by means of this letter, would like to urge the Town of Winthrop and its elected and appointed representatives to:
1) Consider seeking representation and/or influence on the search for the new Massport CEO, in which Massport is presently engaged.
2) Guarantee regular representation for Winthrop on all airport-related Community Advisory Committees. In particular, now that the Massport Community Advisory Committee has a new Executive Director, the Town should attempt to strengthen its influence through this committee.
3) Ensure that accurate and timely announcement and reporting of all airport-related meetings, plans, hazards, abatement programs etc. is provided and accessible to all Winthrop residents, including timely and comprehensive publication of any meeting minutes.
4) Seek independent data collection on noise exposure and air pollution in Winthrop, specifically in the Point Shirley Neighborhood, to be compared with Massport’s published data, in order to elevate and support the basis for future discussions with Massport, prior to signing any further financial or mitigation agreements.
5) Initiate a discussion on an immediate reinstatement of noise abatement programs for Winthrop citizens and other residential areas with high airport-related noise exposure.
The Winthrop Board of Health is committed to assist with and support any such efforts at any time.
Astrid Weins, MD, PhD
Vice Chair, Winthrop Board of Health
Submitted on behalf of the full Winthrop Board of Health: Bill Schmidt, Chair
Dr. Astrid Weins, Vice Chair
Susan Maguire, Member