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US Air Force Admits F-35 Will Harm Health and Learning of Vermont Children

The push to base the F-35 at Burlington Airport shows a callous disregard for the poor children of color living nearby.

The push to base the F-35 at Burlington Airport shows a callous disregard for the poor children of color living nearby.

In its 2013 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the US Air Force disclosed that operation of the F-16 fighter aircraft in the Chamberlin School neighborhood of South Burlington, Vermont, assaults children with noise sufficient to cause learning impairment. The EIS also shows that 45 percent more children will have their learning impaired if the Air Force executes its plan to base F-35 jets in that neighborhood.

The Burlington International Airport is owned by the City of Burlington and is located within the Chamberlin School neighborhood. The airport hosts both civilian aircraft and F-16 jets provided by the US Air Force and operated by the Vermont Air National Guard. However, it is military jets that are responsible for dangerous airport noise.

The Air Force admits that the civilian aircraft contribution to the average noise level at the Burlington airport is “negligible,” and that the currently based squadron of 18 F-16 jets “dominates” the airport noise — even though the military jet operations are only about 7 percent of total airfield operations. Thus, the Air Force admits that the F-16 jets are far louder than the civilian jets, and that the F-16s — and not civilian aircraft — are responsible for the airport noise that harms children.

Civilian Aircraft Cannot Produce Hearing Loss But Can Produce Learning Impairment

The Air Force does not expressly say at what aircraft noise level a child’s learning is injured. It asserts that the noise from civilian aircraft at some of the busiest airports in the world is not high enough to cause hearing loss, but does admit that chronic exposure to the noise levels of civilian aircraft at these airports is sufficient to cause learning impairment. Thus, the Air Force admits that learning impairment of children occurs at lower noise levels than it says is required for hearing loss—and, therefore, that many more young children have their cognitive development disrupted than have damaged hearing.

But the Air Force EIS says that the average sound level in a part of the Chamberlin School neighborhood where 583 people live is so high from the F-16 afterburner that “adverse health effects could be credible,” such as hearing loss. That means children will also be hit with learning impairment, as will many more children beyond that ultra-high-risk zone. (When an afterburner is engaged, fuel is injected into the exhaust stream to increase the temperature and speed of the exhaust as it leaves the tailpipe nozzle, significantly increasing thrust. Unfortunately, the afterburner also vastly increases the noise level.)

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the hearing loss contributes to poor school performance, and in fact, both the WHO and a working group of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization recommend that schools and daycares not be in proximity of such noise. Thus, for children in the especially high average noise zone, the hearing loss they experience makes their learning impairment worse.

Two Ways Learning Is Impaired

The US Air Force describes two distinct ways children’s learning is impaired by the F-16 afterburner, or the F-35: extreme noise blasts directly hitting children thousands of times a year as they grow up, and multiple daily interruptions of speech in their classrooms.

Regarding interruptions of speech in their classrooms, the Air Force admits, “the importance of communication by way of the spoken language to the development of cognitive skills. The ability to read, write, comprehend, and maintain attentiveness, are, in part, based upon whether teacher communication is consistently intelligible.”

The Air Force further acknowledges that “it is generally accepted that young children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of background noise. Because of the developmental status of young children (linguistic, cognitive, and proficiency), barriers to hearing can cause interferences or disruptions in developmental evolution.”

The Air Force EIS presents results of multiple well-designed studies showing that reading, attention, problem-solving and memory are degraded by repeated daily direct blasting of children with aircraft noise.

Thus, students may have learning impairment either because they live in the noise danger zone of the F-16 and are chronically exposed to its direct blasting afterburner noise, or because they attend one of the schools subjected to speech-interrupting noise. Children who live in the Chamberlin School neighborhood and attend the Chamberlin School are hit by both of these mechanisms.

Chronic Direct Blasting of Vermont Children

The Air Force says the F-16 takes off with its afterburner blasting 90 percent of the time, but that pilots switch off the afterburner soon after takeoff. The Air Force identifies 4,602 Vermonters who now live in areas that are chronically exposed to high F-16 afterburner noise levels averaging 65 decibels (dB) DNL (24-hour Day/Night average noise Level) or higher. But the EIS acknowledges that the Environmental Protection Agency recommends a DNL no higher than 55 dB to avoid adverse impact and provide an adequate margin of safety.

Citing the 2010 census, the Air Force says that 20 percent of Vermonters are children, so 920 children are being hit with the extreme F-16 afterburner noise. The Air Force says that these 1,966 homes are “generally not considered suitable for residential use.” Children are the reason for that designation: Most of these high-noise-level areas can still be zoned for commercial and industrial activity because children would not generally be present playing outdoors or doing homework in such areas.

The Air Force does not say what percentage of these children is estimated to have learning impairment. A report issued by the WHO includes an exposure-risk graph showing that the percentage of children cognitively impaired increases as average noise level rises: 10 percent of children exposed to 55 dB DNL, 30 percent of the children exposed to 65 dB DNL and 55 percent of children exposed to 75 dB DNL.

The Air Force says that a person on the ground below is exposed to a peak sound level of 94 dB from the F-16 on takeoff at 1,000 feet elevation in ordinary military power (with afterburner off), and that the peak sound level from the F-35 under the same conditions is 115 dB. According to the Air Force, each 10 dB increase in sound level is heard by the human ear as a doubling of the sound’s loudness. Thus, the 21 dB increase is heard as more than two doublings, making the F-35 more than four times louder than the F-16 when both are taking off in ordinary military power.

A sound contour map in the EIS shows the F-35 is so loud taking off in ordinary military power that it is almost as loud in the Chamberlin School neighborhood as the F-16 taking off with its afterburner blasting. But unlike the F-16 afterburner, the ordinary-military-power-F-35 sound is not switched off soon after takeoff: The F-35 continues more than four times louder than the F-16 over the neighboring towns.

The F-16 arrived for basing in Burlington in 1986, and it successfully operated for 22 years without using its afterburner. But in 2008 — one year before scoping for F-35 basing began — the F-16’s external fuel tanks were repositioned from belly to wing tips, and that change required the routine use of the F-16 afterburner for takeoff. The afterburner sharply increased the number of people, homes, schools and children hit by what was now extreme F-16 noise. But that extreme noise established a high “baseline” that facilitated the Air Force’s decision to select the Burlington Air Guard Station for F-35 basing over two other environmentally preferred locations, because it would appear to be the F-16 rather than the F-35 causing all the damage to children, homes, schools and property values.

To the extent the decision to require the afterburner for F-16 takeoff in 2008 was driven by the coming Air Force decision on where to locate the F-35, the Air Force admissions of learning impairment mean that Vermont’s political, military and business leaders have been sacrificing children in the Chamberlin School neighborhood for the last 10 years.

The Air Force identifies 6,663 Vermonters who now live in areas that will be chronically exposed to high F-35 noise levels averaging at least 65 dB DNL if the F-35 arrives for basing at the airport in the Chamberlin School neighborhood. As 20 percent of these are children, 1,333 kids will be chronically exposed to the high F-35 ordinary military power noise level that can impair learning. That is 45 percent more children than are now so assaulted by the F-16 and its afterburner.

According to the Air Force, F-35 flight operations will total 5,486 annually, of which 2,200 will be takeoffs in the Chamberlin School neighborhood, and another 2,200 will be landings. The Air Force does not disclose how loud the F-35 will be when it takes off with its own afterburner blasting, but it does admit 5 percent of those takeoffs will expose children to learning- and health-impairing F-35 afterburner sound explosions that will be far louder than the F-16 afterburner.

Meanwhile, classroom speech is interrupted. The EIS names seven schools now hit with multiple daily speech-interrupting noise events in classrooms from the F-16, and says those same schools and classrooms will be similarly hit by the F-35.

Air Force Understates Noise Levels and Classroom Interruptions

Even with the identification of seven schools, the EIS understates the problem. First, the Air Force does not mention all the schools with F-16 speech-interrupting classroom noise. For example, J.F. Kennedy Elementary School, Winooski Middle School and Winooski High School are all located in the flight path on the same campus in Winooski, several blocks from the St. Francis Xavier School, which the Air Force says has among the heaviest classroom interruptions. The currently-based F-16s hit the 750 students in those three public schools with speech-interrupting noise in classrooms multiple times a day, particularly in spring, summer and fall when windows are open.

The EIS acknowledges that Winooski has a much higher proportion of low-income residents and a higher proportion of non-white residents than Vermont as a whole, and children in those three schools will be hit with much louder speech interruptions from the F-35 than from the F-16. Yet, the Air Force entirely omits these three schools from its list of schools with speech-interrupting noise events from both the F-16 and the F-35.

Second, the Air Force does not disclose how loud the noise is and how many classrooms in the seven schools have classes interrupted by F-16 or F-35 noise, nor does it acknowledge how many students attend each of these schools and are subjected to learning impairment by speech-interrupting classroom noise events.

Although the Air Force admissions are enough to unequivocally establish government-sponsored learning impairment in Vermont, the scope of the dangers to children from the F-16 afterburner is actually significantly larger than those it discloses.

The F-35 in the Chamberlin School Neighborhood

By the time a child finishes 5th grade at the Chamberlin School at 11 years of age, numbers given by the Air Force show that his or her learning will have been hit four ways by the F-35:

First, the F-35 will hit the child’s ears and brain with 24,000 extreme learning-impairing noise blasts on takeoff under ordinary military power.

Second, the F-35 afterburner will hit him or her with 1,210 ultra-extreme learning-impairing blasts during those 11 years.

Third, teaching and speech in the child’s classes will be interrupted by F-35 noise many times a day nearly every school day of his or her elementary school life.

Fourth, children who live in the especially high 75 dB DNL noise danger zone will be exposed to both learning impairment and hearing damage, and the hearing damage will increase their learning impairment.

The chronic daily government-sponsored assaults with several types of learning impairment and cognitive development starting the day a child is born might lead to reduced educational attainment, poorer reading, communication and problem-solving skills, emotional distress, lesser employment, less income, less enjoyment of life and other negative effects for the rest of his or her life. The impact is most severe on towns that the Air Force admits have disproportionate minority nd low-income populations.

Ending Government-Sponsored Child Abuse

In order to stop abusing Vermont children, the Air Force and the Vermont Air National Guard and its pilots and ground crews must immediately halt F-16 afterburner takeoffs in the Chamberlin School neighborhood.

Additionally, the City of Burlington must use its authority as owner of the airport to cancel the planned F-35 basing and demand that the Air Force instead provide the Air Guard with low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record, as called for by the voters of Burlington in the city-wide referendum on March 2018, and as reinforced by votes of the City Councils of Burlington, Winooski and South Burlington. Under no circumstances should the city allow the F-35 to be based without the consent of the people and against their will.

Finally, the Vermont attorney general or local state’s attorney must establish an independent and impartial investigation with full power to subpoena, question under oath, and hold accountable those responsible for initiating, promoting and continuing the use of the F-16 afterburner in the Chamberlin School neighborhood since 2008. Operations of the F-16 jets have been abusing children by impairing their learning and damaging their hearing for 10 years and continue to do so to this day.

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