UW study finds health implications from Growler noise

A study on the health effects of noise from Growlers and an opinion piece received strong reactions.

A major study on the health effects of noise from EA-18G Growlers and an opinion piece from the study’s authors have received strong reactions on Whidbey Island, where the Navy jets are stationed.

It’s unclear how the study might affect two ongoing federal lawsuits against the Navy over the noise from the electronic warfare aircraft.

The study, “Population health implications of exposure to pervasive military aircraft noise pollution,” was published May 9 in Nature, one of the world’s leading, peer-reviewed journals. It finds that 74,000 people within the area of aircraft noise exposure, which is mainly Whidbey Island, are at risk of adverse health effects. In addition, the study warned of classroom learning impacts.

The three main authors of the study — Giordano Jacuzzi and Julian Olden of the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and Edmund Seto of the UW School of Public Health — wrote a column for the Seattle Times. They described the study as “the first comprehensive evaluation of the public health implications of military noise pollution in the region.”

“The sound of military aviation is unlike any other source of noise,” they wrote. “Growlers emit noise that is intense, with rumbling low-frequency energy that penetrates windows, shakes walls and can elicit more severe responses than civil aviation.”

Paula Spina, a member of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, said the study confirmed what the anti-jet-noise group has been saying for 10 years while facing criticism within the Whidbey community.

“It’s great that someone who people will listen to is saying this,” she said.

On the other hand, the Navy League of the United States, Oak Harbor Council, reacted swiftly with a statement questioning the legitimacy of the study. The group pointed out that three of the authors listed on the study are from activist groups, including one that is currently suing the Navy.

“The University of Washington has lent its goodwill and legitimacy to one side of a local Whidbey issue,” a Navy League statement reads. “The Oak Harbor Navy League believes university leadership should retract this study and recharacterize it as overt activism.”

The study was funded by a research grant from the UW’s Population Health Initiative. Besides Jacuzzi, Olden and Seto, the “authors and affiliates” sections of the study includes representatives from two Whidbey-based advocacy groups, Sound Defense Alliance and Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, known as COER.

Spina said the study used data from a broad range of sources, including experts whom COER hired to record the noise and collect data. The paper shows that the study was largely based on numbers from the Navy. A bill passed with support from U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen required the Navy to do real-world testing of the sound levels.

COER and the state Attorney General’s Office sued the Navy in federal court, arguing that the Navy’s environmental study of the impact of increased Growlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

The federal judge sided with the attorney general and COER on several key issues, but both sides asked the judge to reconsider his decision. The case is currently awaiting the judge’s determination.

Spina said the study may not become evidence in the case directly or affect the judge’s pending decision. The judge initially found that the study failed to quantify the impact of Growler noise on classroom learning; failed to disclose the basis for greenhouse gas emissions calculations; failed to take a hard look at species-specific impacts on birds; and failed to give detailed consideration of an El Centro, California alternative.

If the judge upholds his original decision and orders the Navy to redo parts of the study, then the new EIS would have to consider the best available science. Spina said the new UW study presents the best available science on the health impacts of military jet noise, so it should be incorporated into a redone EIS.

In addition, attorneys from two national law firms in 2019 filed a lawsuit against the Navy in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on behalf of a group of Central Whidbey residents; it seeks monetary damages from the Growler noise impacts. A spokesperson for the law firms could not be reached.

The UW study used different exposure-response models than the Navy employed in its EIS. The authors state that the model used by the Navy comes from a survey of data that is nearly 50 years old and has repeatedly been shown to underestimate health impacts. Instead, the study used models recommended by the World Health Organization.

“Perhaps most striking is our finding that thousands of people are exposed to unprecedented noise levels that are literally ‘off the charts’ — that is, beyond the limits of established exposure-response models used to estimate health impacts around the world,” the authors wrote.

The Navy League, on the other hand, pointed out that Island County is one of the healthiest counties in the state, which itself ranks as the sixth healthiest in the nation.

“The population enjoys those high rankings, and enduring health outcomes, due in large part to the robust services and economy buoyed by the Navy,” the Navy League reported.

The Navy League also argued that some elements in the study are not accurate. The statement says that field carrier landing practice, which occurs largely at Outlying Field Coupeville, has remained constant in recent years — contrary to the study’s information — and that operations have neither been consolidated nor expanded.

“The Growler enjoys broad support by much of the population UW cites as ‘at risk,’” the Navy League said. “It has a perfect record protecting U.S. and allied platforms. It was also one of the very first combat jets recently called to protect NATO from Russia. High value and high demand, the Growlers should not be the target of an imperfect study by the University of Washington.”

Spina, on the other hand, argues that recent conflicts have shown that Growlers are quickly becoming obsolete, with drones replacing their electronic warfare function in some instances. She said Larsen and base officials should be pushing to have such technology placed at NAS Whidbey.

“We should be grabbing that up now to keep the base open and relevant in the future,” she said.