Opinion: Is local aviation noise causing Berkeley residents to get sick?

Noise from low-flying planes is annoying and may be detrimental to people’s health. More research is needed to explore the impacts of noise.

As a longtime resident of Berkeley and the East Bay, I’ve noticed a number of changes in the past two decades. But it wasn’t until having a newborn that I realized the barrage of low-flying aircraft at all hours of the day and night. These loud buzzing planes, which populate our skies, are distinct in tenor from commercial airline traffic. These are the loud motors that sound like they could cut out at any second and crash into your house. In addition to the increased vehicular traffic, and of course, the BART and buses, planes are a major contributor to disrupting Berkeley’s peace.

The problem with loud, low-flying aircraft is that their noise may be causing not-yet-attributed death and disease. How many millions of hours of lost sleep each month are lost in Berkeley due to people waking up, having visceral physical reactions to the shudders from low frequency deafening vibrations, and not being able to get back to sleep or experiencing increased heart rate? How many Berkeley residents, especially children and the elderly, are taking medications in part unwittingly as a result of these regular onslaughts of sound?

Currently, we have few data on these issues locally. But the burgeoning field of sound pollution, and the negative effects noise can have on human, animal, and even plant health, points to very real health outcomes from constantly noisy environments. Noise pollution causes constant background anxiety and stress, elevating cortisol levels, and decreasing tolerance to stressful situations. Combined with preexisting issues, it is very possible that the secondary and tertiary physiological effects from the noise and low vibrations from aircraft could be causing health events leading to disease and emergency room visits. Increased ambient noise can even lead to increased crime rates.

Berkeley’s current situation, with scores of nonessential anonymous low-flying aircraft blighting our skies and our nervous systems each day, presents a perfect opportunity for a public health intervention. As we can’t know the salutary effects of silence until we experience it, restricting traffic over our airspace, and looking at the change in emergency room admissions, would allow a natural experiment to determine whether this public health intervention is warranted long-term. Comparing crime statistics for this period of relative quiet might also be productive and surprising. Sound, especially pervasive low noises (often used intentionally by police forces to combat protesters and in war situations), can become so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable; and yet, it can have a profound consequence on our health and behavior.

There are also other issues broached when looking at how noise determines our health. There’s the social justice issue: Are these planes only frequenting the flatlands? Or are they equally annoying the Berkeley Hills? Is the nuisance not as noticeable or disagreeable for those who can afford to have triple-paned windows, compared to those with more sonically porous structures? What about the additional negative effects this is having on Berkeley’s houseless population?

Then there’s the environmental issue: How is birdsong negatively affected by loud tremors caused by aircraft? Do they mate less? Is there song distorted? Are other local mammals also harmed through their communication, not able to pierce the background buzz?

Finally, there’s the city rights issue: For what purpose are these planes flying over our city and county? Are they all fully licensed? Are these mere joy rides? How does the pleasure of these aviators measure against the negative health effects to the environment and our health they cause? Is our airspace a democratic territory where we as residents decide whether the harms are worth it?

From a public health standpoint, these questions beg answering before we press the snooze button and go back to the status quo. Research in the social determinants of health indicate that the varying degree of exposures to harms and the varying protective or insulating resources we have, play an enormous role in determining who gets sick and experiences severe health events, and who prospers. The City of Berkeley would be wise not to turn a deaf ear to the serious consequences of noise pollution in our community.

Yogi Hale Hendlin has a PhD and is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is working on the social determinants of health and is a long-time local resident.