Good Health Takes Flight in Airport Communities

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
-Edward Abbey

While jet passengers flying above you may have temporary motion sickness or choke momentarily on salted peanuts, the real health damage is occurring below.
One cause of bad health near airports is noise. On a typical day at Sea-Tac Airport, about 1,000 total takeoffs and landings occur. This noise severely affects thousands of people in South King County. Another cause, harder to document, is the toxins emitted by airports and the ground traffic around them, and the air and water pollution which result.
A report available from the Regional Coalition on Airport Affairs (see Contacts), written by MDs Dennis Hansen and Lee Sanders, outlines the wide body of research showing ill-effects of airport noise. This research suggests that airport communities may be excellent locations for new pharmacies.
Drug surveys performed by Knipschild et al. and reported in The International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health in 1977 found a marked increase in the use of tranquilizers and sedatives, and a doubling of prescriptions for blood-pressure medicines and antacids after the building of a new jet runway. Four British studies have shown an increased number of psychiatric admissions from noise-affected neighborhoods around jet airports. The culprit may be as simple as this: jets are loud, and it's hard to sleep next to them. According to a sleep study, 60 percent of people living within six kilometers of Kennedy Airport reported difficulty sleeping, compared with only ten percent of people living 19 kilometers away.
There may be little non-medicinal relief. Rachel Garson of Sea-Tac airport's Communications division states that "the noise is not going to change significantly." Although the airport is moving from older and louder Stage II aircraft to newer and quieter Stage III aircraft, Garson anticipates enough growth to keep the decibels about where they are now.
From the womb through high school, the effects of noise on kids have been well-researched. Studies show reduced birth weights and a higher rate of premature births in airport communities.
Several Highline District schools are located in noisy areas near Sea-Tac airport. Sound measurements done in Highline schools in 1992 recorded levels of up to 85 decibels in the classrooms. The effect in the classroom is "similar to starting a gasoline lawn mower or running a food blender every two to three minutes," according to the RCAA report.
During the 1970's, industrial hygienist Dr. Peter Breysee of the University of Washington found that students in the noisiest Highline schools did significantly worse on standard math tests, compared to students studying in quieter schools in the same district. A 1985 study by K.B. Green reached a similar conclusion: students in noise-infested classrooms are more likely to read at least one year below grade level compared to students in quiet classrooms.
Sea-Tac covers less than one quarter of one percent of the land in King County. However, the Department of Ecology (DOE) found in 1991 that it contributed eight percent of the carbon monoxide and five percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions in all of King County. Despite the asphyxiation, proving specific health effects is difficult because Sea-Tac air pollutants are not regularly monitored by any agency.
However, there has been some spot checking by the DOE. According to a study for the year 1984, Sea-Tac contributed 12.7 tons of benzene, a known carcinogen, to the community's atmosphere. A 1991 DOE study using computer models suggested that airport neighbors can at times be subjected to dangerous levels of benzene, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates.
Minimal air testing, 32 hours, was performed by the firm McCulley, Frick, and Gilman for the Port's draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released last year. The actual testing covered a variety of toxins, but health-risk analyses were curiously only performed for three toxic air contaminants. Of the three, carbon monoxide registered above federal guidelines in some surroundings.
Rose Clark, a Burien library worker and health activist, has been documenting cases of a rare form of brain cancer, in cooperation with Highline Community Hospital. She has so far uncovered ten confirmed cases of recent glioblastoma deaths near the Sea-Tac airport. Glioblastoma spiders itself around the brain, causing few symptoms until it has spread widely. Normally fatal, it ends the life of only one in 25,000 people. But in the city of SeaTac, population 23,000, there have been at least five cases of the fatal disease in recent years alone. Four others have occurred nearby in Burien and unincorporated areas. This cluster of nine cases is at the north end of the airport, the direction the wind usually blows. One case has been discovered at the south end. Stories of families and circles of friends being decimated by cancers are common in the area.
But because of the long period between exposure and the development of disease, it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the health effects of environmental toxins. The problem is compounded by the fact that thousands of people living closest to Sea-Tac were forced out in the 1970s as part of a second-runway expansion. None of them would likely be represented in any study.
Creek critters have been the main victims of most Sea-Tac water pollution, but damage to a vital drinking water source could occur if the planned 23 million cubic yards of fill dirt are brought in to lay a level surface for a third runway.
The Seattle Water Department, which pumps tapwater from the Highline Aquifer under the north side of the airport, fears that a poorly designed fill could harm the aquifer's natural water replenishment. Moreover, if the fill dirt itself is trucked in from contaminated sources, it could contaminate the aquifer, a source of some ten million gallons of tapwater per day for Puget Sounders since 1987.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Port of Seattle for the third-runway proposal, already admits contamination of aquifers under the airport, chiefly under "fuel farms", which are gas stations for airplanes. This has sharpened the tongue of the Highline Water District, which also sources from the Highline Aquifer. The utility has warned the Port that such contamination should not leach further down into the main aquifer.
If it does, King County residents will have yet another means of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

-Doug Collins
The Free Press

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Contents on this page were published in the February/March, 1996 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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