Impact of aviation noise on health – choosing future research priorities

Before the pandemic, over a million people in the UK were being impacted significantly by aviation noise. As people start to fly again and planes start to return to our skies in greater numbers over the coming months and years, the issue of how aircraft noise affects people’s health will return. If anything, Covid has shone a spotlight on the importance of public health and pushed it further up the political agenda. In this blog, ICCAN senior analyst, Ramyani Gupta, provides an update on work she and others are doing to prioritise areas for future research. 

Experimental studieswhere researchers introduce an intervention and study the effects, have shown that exposure to noise initiates a stress response in the body. This can happen directlyvia the central nervous system, or indirectly, by people experiencing annoyance, sleep or cognitive disturbance, or all of these. 

This stress response results in changes in the cardiovascular system – the heart, and arteries and veins which carry blood around the body – which can lead to a range of health conditions, even if those affected are not aware of it. There is now good evidence to suggest that those who experience significant aviation noise are at higher risk of a range of adverse outcomes, including hypertension, annoyance, sleep disturbance and obesity. It can also lead to cognitive impairment in children and lost productivity in the workplace. 

This is clearly a complex issue, and people’s own perception of noise, as well as levels of other background noise and other factors, can present challenges in quantifying the effects of aviation noise on health. That’s why, as part of ICCAN’s goal of “Putting people’s health at the heart of aviation noise policy”, we are seeking to progress research into the health and wellbeing impacts of aviation noise. 

Last year, we published an assessment of the evidence on the effects of aviation noise on health. This highlighted that there are gaps in the evidence. We found that there is currently no real clarity as to which health and wellbeing outcomes are most important and where best to seek higher quality evidence. 

In recent months, we have used an established method to help identify priorities for future researchWe identified people we had worked with from a range of backgrounds with an interest in the effects of aviation noise on health, based on our previous engagement. We then compiled a longlist of possible research priorities using recommendations, drawing on previous evidence reviews and listening to the views of ICCAN’s stakeholders.  

This long-list included health and educational outcomes such as sleep, cardiovascular disease and cognition; and also other study factors such as noise measures, operational factors, design types and specific sub-populations. We then asked for views on people’s highest priorities for future research using an online survey from a wide range of stakeholders including researchers, academics, the aviation industry and communities. 

In March, we held an online workshop to help us prioritise which areas of research to pursue. Our aims for this session were to bring different stakeholders together to discuss in more depth the considerations in building a better evidence base. 

Using an analysis of the views from the survey as the starting point, we invited groups of attendees ttalk together in online ‘rooms’ and consider new ideas beyond their existing priorities. Building on this, together with a presentation of the results of our evidence review, we asked participants to consider the complex range of factors involved in prioritising evidence needed 

Using a combination of small group discussions and whole group review, we explored some of the difficulties in choosing future priorities. This included the need to find solutions to UK-specific issues and population groups, when much of the evidence has traditionally been international. We also discussed focusing on research that will best inform policy or operational changes and securing the funding for the highest quality studies to give the most robust findings, particularly in light of the current situation. 

Despite the challenges of running an online meeting on a complex topic, bringing people together has helped us to identify priorities for future research. Our next steps will be to publish a brief report on this process and its conclusions. We will then work with an independent advisory panel to develop detailed research proposals, which we can use to commission new research working in partnership with academia and the research community.

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