Chronic aircraft noise exposure effects on children's learning and development

Seabi, Joseph Mahlakane
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The effects of exposure to environmental noise on individuals’ functioning have been researched extensively in recent times. However, most of this research has focused on adults who, unlike children, have the cognitive capacity to anticipate and cope with noisy environments. This research was based largely on laboratory studies that lacked ecological validity thus avoiding the implications of long-term, real-life exposure to noise. The increasing exposure of people (currently over 80 million people) to unacceptable levels of aircraft noise worldwide gives rise to crucial questions such as the long-term effects of exposure to aircraft noise on children’s reading comprehension, health and annoyance reactions and how children cope with exposure to noise. The objectives of this epidemiological study were to investigate the effects of chronic exposure to aircraft noise on primary school children’s reading comprehension; to determine whether their learning was affected by noise; to uncover how these children coped with exposure to noise; to determine whether they were annoyed by exposure to noise; and to evaluate their subjective perceptions of whether exposure to noise impacted negatively on their health. The primary objective was to evaluate the children’s reactions to the above factors after the relocation of an international airport to another area in order to determine whether the cessation of exposure to noise resulted in improved performance and functioning. This thesis is based on the publication of four scholarly articles that deal with the need for empirical research in an emerging field as well as the need for public education and the advocacy of a worthwhile form of environmental health. Children living in the vicinity of an international airport (noisy group) and those living in quieter areas, who matched the noisy group in terms of socio-economic status and language spoken at home, were recruited for the research. This yielded a cohort of 732 children with a mean age of 11.1 who participated in baseline measurements in 2009 as well as cohorts of 649 (mean age = 12.3) and 174 (mean age = 13.1) children. These children were reassessed after the closure and relocation of the airport for two subsequent years. The findings revealed that, unlike their peers from quieter backgrounds, the children exposed to aircraft noise reported that the noise significantly interfered with their learning and social activities at school, and they continued to report more interference than their counterparts despite the relocation of the airport. These findings were validated by the results of the objective measurement of reading comprehension, which showed that these children performed poorly in comparison to their peers. The children exposed to aircraft noise also reported higher levels of annoyance in all the waves of the study (from 2009 to 2011), and they continued to use more coping strategies following the relocation of the airport than the children from quieter environments. However, the findings revealed no significant impact of the noise on the children’s health. Taken together, these findings suggest that chronic exposure to aircraft noise may have a significant and detrimental impact on children’s learning and level of annoyance but not on their subjective health ratings. This was one of the first longitudinal studies of this nature on the African continent. Keywords: Aircraft Noise; Reading Comprehension; Annoyance; Coping; Health.
A PhD Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2014