Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
The noted psychologist and noise researcher Dr. Arline Bronzaft, who pioneered the 1970’s study on how noise from elevated trains in the Bronx affected child learning outcomes, urged me to think about sound in three ways. It’s a physical phenomenon; something makes a noise. And it’s physiological; our ears process the noise into neuronal signals. But sound is also psychological, meaning that when one hears a sound, that sound is interpreted and judged. So when reporting on noise pollution, it is important to consider not simply the decibel level or the frequency, but also the non-auditory and psychological impacts, which include feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and terror experienced by those living in hostile sonic landscapes.
During my Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship I’ve been reporting on how one type of hostile sonic landscape, created by U.S. military warfare training of the latest generation of warplanes, is affecting civilian communities. My video documentation, which can be seen here, focuses on Whidbey Island and the greater Puget Sound area in Washington State and on communities around Burlington, Vermont.
While the specific details of each location vary, the experiences and challenges for residents are similar and point to a lack of regard for the complex nature of noise pollution and its multiple impacts. These impacts will only grow as the U.S. military ramps up deployment of its latest generation of aircrafts.
Residents described the noise as hostile and all encompassing — far more than a mere annoyance. One man said it felt like his entire protoplasm was shaking due to the low frequency vibrations.
Nearly every day on Whidbey Island, for hours at a time, electromagnetic jamming jets known as Growlers, fly low-altitude patterns, sometimes late into the night, over residential communities, with pilots practicing touch and go exercises to simulate aircraft carrier operations. The pilots fly over schools, homes, farms, and play areas, at noise levels exceeding 120 A-weighted decibels — about four times as loud as the experience of hearing a jackhammer from 5 feet away. It’s not uncommon for residents living near the flight paths to wear construction style ear muffs both outside and inside their homes.
The Washington State Department of Health characterized the noise pollution as “a public health threat.” In 2019, Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson, along with a local non-profit, Citizens of Ebeys Reserve, (COER), sued the Navy to stop a proposed expansion that would subject an additional 17,000 people to daily average sound levels of 65 decibels or more — levels the FAA has determined are unsuitable for residential land use. (The World Health Organization suggests an even lower threshold of 55 decibels.) In December, a judge ruled against the Navy on several points, including failure to take account noise impacts on childhood learning and the various bird populations.
Multiple studies show both auditory and non-auditory impacts from high-decibel noise pollution, including cardiovascular disease, tendency to dementia, anxiety, depression, and negative childhood learning outcomes and hearing loss. But my reporting found a gap in the scientific literature in the area of military jet impacts. Noise from military jets is intensely loud but happens less frequently than noise from commercial aviation, which is the subject of most studies. As a result, metrics based on daily average decibel levels are insufficient for capturing the potential harms of military jet training noise. The Washington Department of Health recommended in 2017 that the Navy conduct a health impact assessment. No such study has been forthcoming.
But to the residents of the Puget Sound area, the impacts of the Navy’s deafening roars seem readily apparent. The Navy operates a complaint line where residents can call or email their noise concerns. According to a Freedom of Information Act request, in 2020 the base received 3,897 complaints. I read through the noise complaints and thousands of public comments submitted while the proposed Navy expansion was being reviewed. I also interviewed residents on Whidbey and Lopez Islands, and I set my own phone up as a de facto hotline so residents could leave voice mail messages in real time as to what they were experiencing.
Residents described the noise as hostile and all encompassing — far more than a mere annoyance. One man said it felt like his entire protoplasm was shaking due to the low frequency vibrations. A doctor described outdoor conditions as “unlivable.” Another resident said it felt like the “planes are going to bomb us.” Several callers expressed aggravation and frustration that their concerns were being dismissed. “I just can’t take it anymore. I’m trying to get some work done and I can’t. I’m getting ready to lose my farm over this stuff but I know you don’t care.” Many residents told me they stopped calling the complaint line because nothing is ever done.
Dr. Bronzaft described these interactions as creating a state of learned helplessness. “Helplessness means I’m giving up. It’s no use for me to complain. Nobody’s going to care. And you know, the agency making the noise relies on that because once you enter a state of learned helplessness, the complaint levels decrease, and then you certainly don’t have to do anything about the noise.”
This is the condition many residents now face not just on Whidbey Island but also on the Olympic Peninsula where researchers have shown that the Navy’s Growler training has dramatically altered a once pristine soundscape. That the noise polluter is the same military tasked with protecting the residents is profoundly unsettling. Residents said they feel like the enemy.
Similar conditions are playing out in Burlington, Vermont where 20 F-35 planes are now stationed at the Air National Guard base. Four days a week for several hours a day and some nights and weekends, F-35s train over the most densely populated region of Vermont. Hardest hit is the community of Winooski, a poor city just north of the airport where about 20 percent of residents are new Americans, many from war-torn countries such as Iraq. The arrival of the F-35s put 2,640 dwellings in the 65 decibel and above range, meaning thousands of people are living in conditions the FAA deems incompatible with residential use. To soundproof all of these buildings — and there is disagreement over the effectiveness of sound-proofing — would take 25 years, and still wouldn’t address the noise pollution when people are outdoors.
During my reporting I interviewed Dr. Peter Bingham, a pediatric neurologist and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and a Professor of Neurology at the Larner College of Medicine. In a letter to the editor of the alt-weekly publication Seven Days he wrote, “Hundreds of children in our communities are likely experiencing hearing loss — the so-called ‘temporary threshold shift’ — for hours, days or weeks beyond those few seconds when the F-35s are exposing their brains to neurotoxic levels of noise.” He advised families against moving anywhere near the F-35 training area and was concerned about non-auditory impacts such as depression and anxiety.
The conflict between community health concerns and the growing demands of the U.S. military are playing out all over the country. Madison, Wisconsin, is on schedule to receive the next batch of F-35s. Health professionals and noise pollution researchers play an important role in helping communities and lawmakers understand the risks posed by military warfare training. But my reporting shows that for the most part, these concerns are falling on deaf ears, and residents have few resources available to protect themselves.
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, author, and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.