Airplane Noise Hurts Kids' Reading and Memory

Those exposed to constant airplane noise showed delayed reading abilities

THURSDAY, June 2, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Exposure to high levels of airplane noise may be linked to delayed reading abilities and memory problems among youngsters, a new study finds.

While the effects of air pollution on children's health are well known, less is understood about the damage environmental noise could cause.

"We looked at the effects of air traffic and road traffic noise on children's health and cognitive development," explained lead researcher Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychiatry at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry and Queen Mary and Westfield College at the University of London.

"We found an exposure effect association between chronic aircraft noise and impairment of reading comprehension and recognition memory," he said.

In their study, Stansfeld's group collected data on over 2,800 children, aged 9 to 10, from 89 primary schools located near three major airports. These included Schiphol near Amsterdam, Barajas near Madrid, and London's Heathrow. The researchers assessed aircraft and road traffic noise levels around the schools and then compared them with the results of cognitive tests and health questionnaires.

Their report appears in the June 4 issue of The Lancet.

The researchers found that exposure to aircraft noise was associated with lowered reading comprehension, even after adjustment for socioeconomic differences between high-noise and low-noise schools. Reading age in children exposed to high levels of airplane noise was delayed by up to two months in the United Kingdom and up to one month in the Netherlands.

However, road traffic noise did not affect reading and, unexpectedly, was associated with improved recall memory. Increased exposure to both airplane and road traffic noise was associated with increased stress and reduced quality of life, the researchers add.

Stansfeld speculated that airplane noise gets the children's attention, blocking out more useful noises that might be helpful in learning to read. "It may also have to do with interference in the communication between teachers and children," he said.

Airplane noise is also more disturbing than traffic noise, Stansfeld said. Traffic noise is a constant background, while airplane noise is a rapidly rising noise, which can be disturbing. "It could be the disturbance, as much as the noise itself, that's interfering with the children's reading."

Stansfeld believes new schools should not be built near airports. "For those schools that are exposed to aircraft noise, one should be thinking about whether they should be properly sound-insulated."

Stansfeld advised parents to not worry too much about the new findings. "Don't panic. It's quite a small effect," he said.

One expert views the findings as more evidence of the ever-increasing noise level plaguing modern life. "Noise is a ubiquitous hazard," said Dr. Peter M. Rabinowitz, an assistant professor of internal medicine from the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program at the Yale University School of Medicine.

"It's so ubiquitous that we tend to take it for granted," he said. "And yet we are starting to find out that there may be health effects that we had not suspected."

Rabinowitz, the author of an accompanying commentary, said this study highlights the need to take noise pollution seriously.

"This study builds the case that some of this noise that we are feeling there's nothing you can do about it, maybe we should be doing more about it. Health people should be more involved with the issue than they are now," he added.

More information

The National Library of Medicine can tell you more about noise pollution.

SOURCES: Stephen Stansfeld, Ph.D., professor, psychiatry, St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London; Peter M. Rabinowitz, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, internal medicine, Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; June 4, 2005, The Lancet
Consumer News