With all the studies, rallies, litigation, and frustration, the Santa Monica Airport has been pushed into the limelight with a lot of press and even more accusations. The community is now left to sift through the facts.
For some residents it is a guessing game over which facts are correct, for others it is a full-time job to decipher information released by airport staff, government officials, or advocate groups. Until recently, residents have been left to draw their own conclusions on who to trust and where to turn to for answers. Dissatisfied community members went to the Monday, May 24 Santa Monica Airport Commission Meeting to hear City Council members address ways to alleviate impacts on the community.
One obvious concern is noise. At the meeting a middle school boy who attends John Adams Middle School stood before the group to explain how classes are interrupted when his teacher has to stop clarifying math problems as a plane flies overhead. He played a recording of the drowning noise heard in the classroom.
The airport is located within a one-mile radius of nine preschools and daycares, 11 elementary schools, four middle schools, five colleges, and six parks, two of which border the airport.
A UCLA assessment that examined such affects on children in the classroom is receiving attention from both sides of the spectrum. The “Santa Monica Airport Health Impact Assessment” is an academic summary of existing research conducted by UCLA Pediatric residents (students under expert supervision). Alma Guerrero, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA, explained in an email such assessments are frequently used to determine the health impacts of public policy and are used to inform policyholders on complex information.
The report, which has been used by organizations deploring the activities of the airport, is not published or peer reviewed so the use in a public forum is unusual.
However university faculty fully supports the report that provided actual recommendations on how to address health risks, useful when the focus on solutions can be lost in all the fury of complaints. The health assessment proposes the FAA enforce noise thresholds with noise reduction strategies, such as “soundproofing of schools and significantly affected homes near SMO.” The full Health Impact Assessment can be viewed at www.ph.ucla.edu/hs/hiaclic/pdfs/SM_Airport_Health_Impact_Assessment.pdf.
Shalini Jain said she can’t sleep thanks to the frequency of planes flying overhead during the night.
Despite a curfew on departures at SMO, there are no limits on arrivals at the airport and Jain is just one Ocean Park resident dealing with the reality of airplanes. Her knowledge as a family physician and research into how noise pollutants affect disturbances in the sleep, led her to the Southern Medical Journal article, “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.”
The article addresses the cardiovascular changes caused by disturbances in sleep, such as a loud plane engine passing overhead, which trigger raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, or cause blood vessels to restrict. Even without the sleeper’s awareness Jain said, sleep disturbances disrupt sleep cycles and these cardiovascular changes can lead to cardiovascular disease.
“It’s almost like the body reacts in a flight or fight response, so the body triggers as though there is a threat,” Jain said.
Noise is just one concern being addressed in numerous studies with further complications in terms of regulations that are decided on state or federal levels. SMO Director Bob Trimborn explained the airport studies noise levels of each plane leaving the tarmac, at both ends of the runway, in terms of decibels and also duration to evaluate the effect on the human ear. Trimborn said the airport “does not exceed federal standards for noise exposure” and air noise is discussed at the monthly Airport Commission meetings.
In April, the airport recorded 14 violations of airplanes above the maximum 95 decibels, with over 99.8 percent of aircrafts in compliance with the noise ordinance, according to the noise management program report.
How air quality is affected by airplane fuel is a harsh reality for residents east of the runway. A study led by two UCLA Institute of Environment professors indicates that ultrafine particle emissions, a known carcinogen that can permeate tissue on a cellular level, are 10 times higher than normal 300 feet from the runway where numerous homes border the airport. Levels are 2.5 times higher at a distance of 2,000 feet, which extends concern to residents in Venice and West L.A.
Susan Stone, a Venice resident in the Rose Street corridor, is one of the many affected by the noise and air pollution on the eastside of the airport. She, along with many others in the neighboring communities, receive “the brunt of the airport’s noise, safety hazards, and carcinogenic pollutants” with more than 112 planes flying overhead daily. In comparison the flight test over Sunset Park has an expected 10 or 12 planes daily, although residents attest the flights are of much greater frequency.
The major difference between neighboring residents and those in Santa Monica, she said is that their voices are not being heard in the issue.
“We have no seat on the airport commission and virtually all operations happen over our city, the injustice is just stunning,” Stone said. “These are false boundaries, everybody breathes the air and everybody is impacted by the noise.”
Sam Atwood, media manager for the South Coast Air Quality and Management District (AQMD), explained although hundreds of pollutants are found near airports, there are only health standards for about seven. Despite elevated levels of lead in areas bordering the runways, he said the levels do not exceed federal standards. A six-month study by the group also discovered the ultrafine particles found in residential areas.
The Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a study to detect and measure levels of toxins in the air, especially lead emitted from propeller aircrafts. The AQMD performed a comprehensive study on the general aviation airports in Santa Monica and Van Nuys, which is set to be finalized this fall. Single-propeller planes still burn leaded fuel, even though cars eliminated leaded fuel use back in the seventies.
The real issue is the “high levels” of ultrafine particle pollutants are released in a short amount of time when an aircraft idles and during plane departures. In the case of Santa Monica airport these particles are released into bordering communities. Levels reached up to 600 times higher near Santa Monica Airport than typical air measures, according to the report, including at a residential site located about 330 feet downwind of SMO.
“There is not scientific knowledge to say what would be a safe level or not a safe level,” Atwood said. Without a general consensus or health standards for the known carcinogen, there are no regulations. Ultrafine particles have the potential to penetrate deep into lung tissue and cellular walls that are then carried through the blood stream.
With the controversial flight test route drawing ammunition for residents, there are many long-standing health issues that are just now receiving public attention. The City of Santa Monica is even challenging the Federal Flight Administration to complete a full environmental review of how the controversial flight test path affects the homes and schools the planes now fly over.