State report finds link between Growlers, health problems

By Jessie Stensland

South Whidbey Record reporter

A Washington State Department of Health report that analyzes existing studies contradicts the Navy’s claim that there is no link between military jet noise and health.

The state’s analysis points to the limitations of existing evidence, but concludes that “the current body of scientific literature suggests that the noise levels similar to those reported from the NAS Whidbey Island Complex pose a threat to public health.”

The Navy also looked at existing studies as part of the draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on an increase in EA-18G Growlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, but concluded that the studies do not support the assertion that military jet noise causes health problems.

Both the state’s analysis and the Navy’s EIS, however, find evidence that noise can affect children’s cognitive abilities.

The new analysis states that it was conducted at the request of the state Board of Health and the Island County Public Health Department, even though the Island County Board of Health passed, in a 3-2 vote, a resolution stating that no action was to be taken since there are no facts “to demonstrate causation between jet noise and individual health concerns.”

Dr. Brad Thomas, the county medical officer, said he asked the state to create the document because the county Board of Health had prevented him from presenting information about anything the majority of members consider “anti-Navy.”

“This is not anti-Navy. This is anti-noise,” he said of the analysis. “It would be exactly the same if there was a NASCAR race track or high school band practice.”

Thomas stressed that noise is a very minor risk factor for the health concerns outlined in the analysis, but a risk factor nonetheless.

The state is submitting the analysis as a comment on the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the increase in the number of EA-18G Growlers stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The comment period ends Friday.

The state’s analysis represents a win for the anti-jet-noise group Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, which repeatedly asked the county Board of Health to look into the health impacts of Growler noise. COER’s focus is on aircraft carrier landing practice at the Outlying Field Coupeville, where operations could increase to as much as 400 hours a year.

The board adopted the resolution in response to COER’s demands. COER then complained to the state Board of Health that the county’s health director and health officer were shirking their duties by not addressing potential public health concerns of Navy jets.

Thomas said officials from the state Board of Health and Department of Health questioned him about the issue and expressed concern that he was being impeded in his duties. He told them that there were no problems as long as he didn’t mention the Navy. A past county Board of Health chairman, for example, prevented him from speaking about the issue during a public meeting; his usual comment period was then removed from meeting agendas.

Thomas said state officials asked how they could help and he suggested an analysis to “firm up” his concerns, he said. The resulting analysis was reviewed by the state health officer, the secretary of health and the governor’s staff, Thomas said.

The analysis looked at recent literature on the health effects of noise exposure and compares the findings to Growler noise. It states that such noise is not linked to hearing loss, but there is “increasing evidence that noise exposure is associated with annoyance, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment and adverse cardiovascular outcomes.”

The analysis states that there have been minimal studies associated specifically with military jet noise.

“There are likely nuances associated with noise exposures specific to military aircraft that are not thoroughly understood,” it states. “However, noise levels similar to those reported from NAS Whidbey Island Complex described in all recent reports pose a threat to public health.”

The authors of the draft EIS, on the other hand, looked to the scientific literature for conclusive evidence and found none.

“Despite some sensational articles purporting otherwise, and the intuitive feeling that noise in some way must impair health,” the draft EIS states, “there are no studies that definitively show a causal and significant relationship between aircraft noise and health.”