Week of 7/2/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What are the health and environmental issues associated with the noise and air pollution at airports?

—John Cermak, via e-mail

Researchers have known for years that exposure to excessively-loud noise can cause changes in blood pressure as well as changes in sleep and digestive patterns—all signs of stress on the human body. The very word "noise" itself derives from the Latin word "noxia," which means injury or hurt.

On a 1997 questionnaire distributed to two groups—one living near a major airport, and the other in a quiet neighborhood—two-thirds of those living near the airport indicated they were bothered by aircraft noise, and most said that it interfered with their daily activities. The same two-thirds complained more than the other group of sleep difficulties, and also perceived themselves as being in poorer health.

Perhaps even more alarming, the European Commission, which governs the European Union (E.U.), considers living near an airport to be a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke, as increased blood pressure from noise pollution can trigger these more serious maladies. The E.U. estimates that 20 percent of Europe’s population—or about 80 million people—are exposed to airport noise levels it considers unhealthy and unacceptable.

Airport noise can also have negative effects on children’s health and development. A 1980 study examining the impact of airport noise on children’s health found higher blood pressure in kids living near Los Angeles" LAX airport than in those living farther away. A 1995 German study found a link between chronic noise exposure at Munich’s International Airport and elevated nervous system activity and cardiovascular levels in children living nearby. And a 2005 study published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, found that kids living near airports in Britain, Holland and Spain lagged behind their classmates in reading by two months for every five decibel increase above average noise levels in their surroundings. The study also associated aircraft noise with lowered reading comprehension, even after socio-economic differences were considered.

Living near an airport also means facing significant exposure to air pollution. Jack Saporito of the U.S. Citizens Aviation Watch Association (CAW), a coalition of concerned municipalities and advocacy groups, cites several studies linking pollutants common around airports—such as diesel exhaust, carbon monoxide and leaked chemicals—to cancer, asthma, liver damage, lung disease, lymphoma, myeloid leukemia, and even depression. CAW is lobbying for the clean up of jet engine exhaust as well as the scrapping or modification of airport expansion plans across the country.

Another group working on this issue is Chicago’s Alliance of Residents Concerning O"Hare, which lobbies and conducts extensive public education campaigns in an effort to cut noise and pollution and rein in expansion plans at the world’s busiest airport. According to the group, five million area residents may be suffering adverse health effects as a result of O"Hare, only one of four major airports in the region.

CONTACTS: Alliance of Residents Concerning O"Hare, www.areco.org; U.S. Citizens Aviation Watch Association, www.us-caw.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is better for the environment, cork wine stoppers, or plastic or screw tops?

—Susan Wolniakowski, Duluth, MN

Though you might be surprised, natural cork wine stoppers are the best choice, primarily because harvesting the real stuff is an age-old practice that keeps the world’s relatively small population of cork oak trees, which can live for hundreds of years, alive. These scattered pockets of cork oaks, mostly in Portugal and Spain, thrive in the hot, arid conditions of the southern Mediterranean, sheltering a wide array of biodiversity and helping to protect the soil from drying out.

In addition, some wildlife depends upon cork oak forests for their survival, including the Iberian lynx, the Barbary deer and the Egyptian mongoose, as well as rare birds such as the Imperial Iberian eagle and the black stork. As wine producers switch to other types of wine stoppers, the cork oak forests could be abandoned and the trees and the myriad plants and animals that depend on them could die out.

While 70 percent of wine bottles still contain natural cork stoppers, plastic and glass alternatives have been coming on strong in recent years. Indeed, more and more winemakers around the world are switching to alternatives, citing benefits including the avoidance of cork mold that can taint wine and the ability to more easily re-close opened bottles. In Australia and New Zealand—both promising upstarts on the global wine scene—the majority of wine producers use screw caps, mainly because they can make them cheaply instead of paying the relatively high price of importing the natural cork.

But the increasing popularity around the world of screw caps and plastic stoppers has cork producers and environmentalists alike worried. In a recent report, "Cork Screwed," the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicts that, at the current rate of adoption by wine producers, screw caps and other synthetic non-cork wine stoppers will dominate the market by 2015, calling into question the future of Mediterranean cork forests. In order to stem the tide, the organization is supporting efforts by Portuguese cork producers to certify their practices as sustainable by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes sustainable, economically-viable forestry practices around the world.

"Cork oak forests rank among the top biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean and in Europe. At the same time, they are the backbone of an entire economy," says Nora Berrahmouni, coordinator of WWF’s Cork Oak Landscapes program. "FSC certification will reinforce the already environmentally friendly characteristics of the cork economy, leading to new opportunities in cork markets," she adds.

Public opinion will undoubtedly be what calls the day, and producers of plastic stoppers and metal screw caps are working hard to overcome the stigma associated with using their products, as most consumers still associate non-cork stoppers with cheap wine. For now, the world’s premiere winemakers in Europe are still bullish on the cork reserves in their own backyards. And wine enthusiasts everywhere can do their part to help the environment by choosing wines with natural cork stoppers.

CONTACTS: Forest Stewardship Council, www.fsc.org/en/whats_new/news/news_notes/23; "Cork Screwed," http://assets.panda.org/downloads/cork_rev12_print.pdf.