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Study shows local health impacts from Growler noise

A growler plane on a tarmac or runway.
Josef Abraham
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A Boeing EA-18G Growler sits parked at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island 

A new study on the health effects of noise from EA-18G Growlers flying out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island indicates many are at risk from aircraft noise exposure on Whidbey, and residents from surrounding counties say they feel the impacts, too.

“Whidbey takes the brunt of it. We often get secondary fallout,” said Christine Kerlin, a Lopez Island resident and data collector for the environmental organization, Quiet Skies over San JuanCounty. “Today, for example, we were getting some flyovers even when they’re not flying over. They’re doing their thing down in Coupeville at the (Outlying Field). You can hear that.”

The study, “Population health implications of exposure to pervasive military aircraft noise pollution,” published May 9 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, shows more than 74,000 people, mostly on Whidbey, are at risk of annoyance, sleep disturbance, hindered childhood learning and hearing impairment.

The researchers analyzed four weeks of acoustic and flight operations data collected by the Navy in 2020 and 2021, as well as data collected by a private acoustics company and the National Park Service. They then mapped noise exposure across the region to estimate how much noise specific communities were exposed to in an average year. Later, they brought in exposure-response models recommended by the World Health Organization to predict health outcomes.

The study shows that hearing impairment, at 70 decibels or above, is limited to those of Island County, yet sleeping disturbance and other health problems starting at 40 decibels have been recorded in Skagit and San Juan counties, especially Fidalgo Island and the south end of Lopez Island. The Swinomish Reservation was the most severely impacted region in terms of the percentage of community exposure, at roughly 85% of the reservation population.

Growlers, opposed to commercial airlines, exhibit substantial low frequency energy, the study reports, which propagates farther than higher frequency noise. This energy punctures physical barriers such as walls and windows, causing rattling and vibration.

“The noise is excessively loud,” Kerlin said. “It’s like living in a warzone.”

According to the study’s authors, prolonged exposure to noise can lead to cardiovascular disease and psychological disorders. Unlike people living near commercial airports, those affected by military plane noise aren’t eligible under federal policy for extra insulation funding.

The study found that a substantial portion of the population was exposed to noise level at or beyond the defined range of exposure-response relationships, meaning that the levels recorded were unprecedented in community noise studies. The simulation also produced levels of noise below those presented in conventional assessments but which were still proven to elicit adverse health effects.

On the ground effects

Lopez Island School District’s K-12 principal Martha Martin said that no student or teacher has complained about distracting jet noise. Lopez School lies just outside the area mapped in the study as exposed to excessive noise.

While students can hear the Growlers in Fidalgo classrooms, it doesn’t cause an issue, said Nicole Tesch, communications coordinator for the Anacortes School District.

“We’re a proud military community in Anacortes and Oak Harbor, and when a plane goes by, we just stop talking for a moment,” she said.

Growler noise can penetrate windows and shake walls, and flights are occurring at unpredictable times all hours of the day, the authors report. A Seattle Times opinion piece written by three of the study’s authors suggests altering flight paths and operation schedules to benefit the public, arguing that national security does not need to come at the expense of these risks to local civilians.

The Navy League of the United States, Oak Harbor Council, immediately questioned the legitimacy of the study.

“The University of Washington has lent its goodwill and legitimacy to one side of a local Whidbey issue,” an official statement reads. “The Oak Harbor Navy League believes university leadership should retract this study and recharacterize it as overt activism.”

The “authors and affiliations” section of the study includes representatives from two advocacy groups, Sound Defense Alliance and Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve. While data was largely pulled from the Navy’s published sound levels, the study’s authors pulled from many sources including data collectors hired by the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve.

Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve and the state Attorney General’s Office sued the Navy in 2019, claiming the Navy’s environmental study of the impact of increased Growlers did not comply with the Environmental Policy Act. While the federal judge initially sided with the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve in 2022, the case is still pending.

The league argues that the rationale for health concerns posed in the study are suspect, as San Juan and Island counties regularly are listed among Washington’s overall healthiest counties.

Beyond the study’s findings, the study aimed to provide a method to assess the population health risks of noise pollutions from sources other than military aircraft, which could be used as a basis for future environmental and public health impact assessments. The goal was a transparent and reproducible assessment of military aviation noise and its implications for public health.

In 2017, the Washington State Board of Health concluded that available data was insufficient to assess the impacts of a proposed operational increase, and a full public health risk assessment was needed. The model used in the Navy’s original environmental impact study is nearly 50 years old and has been shown to underestimate health impacts, the authors wrote.

If the judge upholds his original decision and orders the Navy to redo the environmental impact study, they will have to include this most recent data.

The Salish Current is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, online local news organization serving Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. We report local news with independence and strict journalistic integrity, providing fact-based information and a forum for civil commentary.

Sam Fletcher is a staff writer for the Whidbey News-Times. Fletcher's work can be found in Earth Island Journal, Atlas Obscura, Seattle Times and many other publications.