Joseph & Leas: F-35 will cause cognitive impairment, hearing loss and cardiovascular disorders

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Richard Joseph of Winooski and James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer in South Burlington.

Children and teachers at Chamberlin School in South Burlington take heed: The latest Air Force report says that:

• Chronic exposure to high aircraft noise levels can impair learning;
• Tasks involving central processing and language comprehension (such as reading, attention, problem solving, and memory) appear to be the most affected by noise;
• Chronic exposure of first- and second-grade children to aircraft noise can result in reading deficits and impaired speech perception (all from page C-29 of the Air Force revised draft Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)).

While the Air Force deserves credit for revealing this harm, the Air Force report understates the danger by omitting all studies of health effects of noise on humans, including children, from the last 10 years. As a result, the Air Force report fails to accurately report the sound level at which cognitive impairment may begin to be expected. Nor does it say the amount of impairment in reading ability and recall that children are expected to experience or say how impairment increases with exposure to noise.

All this is available. And the last 10 years of research shows that far more children will be cognitively impaired. The omission of studies dated after 2002 could not have been accidental: The Air Force report cites studies through 2011 on the effect of aircraft noise on animals. Why were such studies on people omitted?

The 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report, “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise,” cites studies showing substantial impairment in recall and reading in children whose homes or schools are located in areas exposed to aircraft noise less than 65 dB DNL (see FIG. 3.1 on page 48). In addition, the amount of cognitive impairment increases steadily with the noise level.

The 2011 WHO report provides a graph estimating the percent of children affected as aircraft noise level increases:

• In the noise range from 55 to 65 dB DNL, 20 percent of the children are expected to suffer cognitive impairment.
• In the noise range from 65 to 75 dB DNL, 45 to 50 percent of the children are expected to suffer cognitive impairment.
• Above 75 dB DNL, 70 to 85 percent of the children are expected to suffer cognitive impairment.

While the WHO report shows cognitive impairment in children at a noise level as low as 60 dB DNL, the Air Force does not provide a contour line below 65 dB DNL. Nor does the Air Force tell families whose homes are located in the noise zone between 60 and 65 dB DNL, as well as those in higher noise contours, of the substantially higher risks of cognitive impairment their children face from basing the F-35 in South Burlington.

The cognitive impairment in children is not temporary. The 2011 WHO report states, “it is more likely that children who have passed through the mandatory school system in a noisy environment would live with a long-term consequence of cognitive impairment.”


The revised draft EIS also fails to say how many children live in homes in the area the Air Force determined will be exposed to 65 dB DNL noise or higher by the F-35. However, an unofficial estimate of the number of Burlington area children in the noise zone above 65 dB DNL is about 1,500. Based on the results presented in the 2011 WHO report that about 50 percent of children in the noise zone are expected to be cognitively impaired, one can estimate that about 750 Vermont children are likely to be cognitively impaired by F-35 military jet noise.

The cognitive impairment in children is not temporary. The 2011 WHO report states, “it is more likely that children who have passed through the mandatory school system in a noisy environment would live with a long-term consequence of cognitive impairment” (pages 51-52).

In addition, with each year of basing the F-35 in Burlington, as babies are born to parents living in the noise zone, the number of damaged children will steadily increase.

The Air Force should immediately update its report to include the results of recent studies on cognitive impairment in children. It should show the percent of children and number of children who will be cognitively impaired by the F-35 basing each year and during its 35 year basing in Vermont. A discussion of the how the amount of damage increases with months and years of exposure should also be included.

The Air Force should also explain to each and every one of the parents and children in the noise zone how damaging the cognitive abilities of our children is a way of executing the mission of the armed forces to defend them.

To its credit, the Air Force discusses hearing loss and cardiovascular disorders caused by aircraft noise in its report. The Air Force report gives the noise level at which such effects may be credible as 75dB DNL. The Air Force report says that 770 people will live in a noise zone averaging above 75 dB DNL if the F-35 is based in Burlington. Thus, the Air Force will violate its own 75 dB standard and put those 770 people at risk if it decides to base the F-35 in South Burlington.

In addition to studies from the last 10 years showing cognitive impairment of children at less than 75 dB DNL, recent studies show cardiovascular disorders at less than 75 dB DNL. All five studies shown in FIG. 2.4 on page 23 of the 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report, “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise,” show an association between aircraft noise and the prevalence or incidence of high blood pressure, and three of them show this elevated risk beginning at an average sound level that is less than 65 dB DNL.

A 2010 study, “Aircraft noise, air pollution, and mortality from myocardial infarction” by Huss et al. Epidemiology. 2010, 21:829–836 shows a substantial increase in mortality from heart attacks in people chronically exposed to aircraft noise greater than a day/night average level of only 60 dB.

A 2011 paper by Wolfgang Babisch, “Cardiovascular effects of noise,” Noise Health, 2011; 13:201-4 states: It is well understood that noise levels below the hearing damaging criterion cause annoyance, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, physiological stress reactions, endocrine imbalance, and cardiovascular disorders. … The question at present is no longer whether noise causes cardiovascular effects, it is rather: what is the magnitude of the effect in terms of the exposure-response relationship (slope) and the onset or possible threshold.

The article further states that “the evidence is regarded as ‘sufficient’ by most experts, for [daytime average] noise levels greater than 65 dB” to produce an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Therefore, in addition to the greater level of cognitive impairment their children will be subject to, the 3,410 families the Air Force says will be living with noise levels greater than 65 dB DNL are subject to a greater risk of cardiovascular diseases than revealed in the Air Force report.

What you can do

Readers are encouraged to email comments saying that the F-35 should not be based at the airport in South Burlington, and indicate concerns about the plane and/or deficiencies in the revised draft EIS to Air Force Civilian Project Manager Nickolas Germanos before the July 15 public comment deadline: [email protected]

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  • Chris Lewis

    Where can I find the data showing that children currently living near the Burlington airport have more cognitive issues then other children?