Findings from a new study by the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy show that Marylanders could pay $800 million over the next 30 years in medical expenses, lost productivity and lost time as a result of airplane noise around BWI Marshall Airport.
The study, released last week, was sparked by an increase in complaints of airplane noise from the airport after the Federal Aviation Administration changed the flight paths at airports nationwide, including at BWI, in 2015. The FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System was designed to limit delays and carbon emissions, but required planes to fly closer to the ground, generating noise that bothers neighborhoods surrounding airport in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties. The study sought to quantify the financial and health consequences of exposure to that airplane noise.
While the university’s Study on the Health Effects of Air Traffic Noise initially failed to receive funding from the General Assembly two years ago due to a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan, who cited financial concerns, it was ultimately paid for with $100,000 from the Maryland Department of Transportation, said Dr. Zafar Zafari, who created the study with his student, Jeong-eun Park.
The study, which took about a year to complete, measured the effects of airplane noise on cardiovascular disease, birth weight, anxiety and mortality. If the model is accurate, the projected cost over the next three decades for increased morbidity from cardiovascular disease, anxiety and low birthweight is $800 million, assuming inflation and medical care costs remain constant, Zafari said.
If inflation rises, that number jumps to $1.2 billion. While these numbers may look extreme, Zafari noted proper practice in this kind of modeling is to be as conservative as possible.
“This shows the potential projected burden, and if it is true, then it is a pretty significant number,” Zafari said. “Even if a proportion of these costs are really going to happen that is still going to be a significant number just because of aircraft noise.”
Though this isn’t the first study to look at the effects of the new flight patterns, one unique component of its modeling shows the financial effects of low birth weight due to aircraft noise. According to the National Library of Medicine “intense and sustained sound ... has serious implications for the developing vasculature and brain” of unborn fetuses that can cause physiological and behavioral effects.
Those health problems will cost about $600,000 a year alone, according to researchers.
. “That’s pretty significant,” Zafari said
As for what the findings mean for individuals, 20-year-old residents exposed to a moderate amount of noise will pay about $4,000 in medical costs related to the noise over a lifetime. If they are exposed to a high level of aircraft noise that jumps to $69,000. For a 60-year-old, the cost of exposure to a moderate level of noise is also about $4,000, but that number jumps to $158,000 if they are exposed to louder noise. All those numbers are higher when adjusted for inflation.
Members of the DC Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable, which was established by the airport after the new flight patterns took effect to act as a liaison between residents and the Maryland Department of Transportation and FAA, have heard from residents for years about how damaging the sound has been to their quality of life.
“It’s frightening to think about long-term health effects of all of it,” said Jesse Chancellor, vice chair of the roundtable’s technical committee. “The airport can’t ignore the harm it’s doing to the public health.”
Linthicum Sen. Pam Beidle, who has been critical of the new flight patterns, said the study confirmed and quantified how dangerous the aircraft noise is even to communities dozens of miles from the airport.
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“The second-generation patterns are good for the economy of the planes but detrimental to our citizens,” she said in a message. “The FAA needs to respond with more than just small alterations in the flight pattern.”
Airport spokesperson Jonathan Dean said the department is reviewing the study.
“We remain committed to help address community concerns related to aircraft noise as a result of the arrival and departure changes created by the FAA in the NextGen process,” Dean said in an email. “We have worked closely with the community representatives and elected officials on the Roundtable, and devoted significant resources to support their efforts.”
The roundtable voted unanimously last month to support small changes to air traffic procedures at BWI aimed at helping with the noise. Roundtable representatives say there is still a lot of work to be done.
But there isn’t much the airport can do without getting rid of the NextGen flight patterns, and it seems unlikely the FAA will do that, Chancellor said. However, there are temporary ways to reduce the noise, he said, like reducing the number of planes taking off and landing and coordinating the times they fly. They can also do things to prevent the increase in noise such as not building more terminals and gates. Four million dollars of federal funding was recently approved for insulation for houses affected by the noise. But Chancellor said if insulation is the solution, the state will need tens of millions of dollars of funding, which it doesn’t have.
The news comes as the airport announced a multimillion-dollar indoor expansion project.
“If the FAA seriously treats the community as a decision-making stakeholder along with the other stakeholders, I think we can hold the line and maybe reduce the impact in the near term while all the while trying to get the FAA to change their technology,” Chancellor said.