Heathrow's planes over Richmond Park would 'damage mental health'

Sandra Laville
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

A psychologist who treats patients experiencing stress and anxiety with a dose of nature in Richmond Park says the expansion of Heathrow airport will be detrimental to mental health.

Heathrow will on Tuesday publish a consultation on its “master plan” for airport expansion, including environmental aspects of building a third runway.

Related: Heathrow expansion plan involves planes over Richmond Park

Expert evidence, which will be submitted to the consultation by the Friends of Richmond Park, said the effect of low flying aircraft directly over the park for the first time as a result of the expansion would be damaging to mental health.

Dr Alison Greenwood’s evidence comes days after research which showed a two-hour “dose” of nature a week significantly boosts health and wellbeing.

Under the planned expansion of Heathrow hundreds of planes will fly at low altitude over the park – a national nature reserve – for the first time.

Greenwood said the potential negative effects of increased noise pollution from low-flying aircraft on mental wellbeing were of great concern in a country where one in four people suffered a mental health problem each year.

She said: “With over 91% of us living in urban environments, and studies showing a significant increase in anxiety and mood disorders among city dwellers, one might expect our government to be doing all it could to protect our valuable natural spaces.

“It seems irrational then that the government is allowing Heathrow, as part of its plans for the third runway, to propose routing for the first time 47 low-flying arrivals as well as between 17 and 47 extra departures every hour directly over Richmond Park, London’s largest open space, a national nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest.”

Greenwood said she treated patients with mental health problems who were referred to her by GPs, with doses of nature in the park. “The conclusion of hundreds of scientific studies comprehensively demonstrates the mental health benefits of exposure to nature,” she said.

“I regularly walk or sit in Richmond Park with people suffering from all kinds of mental distress, and I see first hand the powerful healing qualities of being in such a magnificent natural setting.”

According to the World Health Organization, environmental noise features among the top environmental risks to physical and mental health and wellbeing. The WHO guidelines recommend reducing noise levels produced by aircraft to below 45 decibels (dB). “Aircraft noise above this level is associated with adverse health effects,” it said.

Under the Heathrow expansion plans, hundreds of planes would produce noise levels of up to 80dB – nearly eight times the WHO guidelines – flying at 1,500 feet over the park.

Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to win the Conservative leadership, has suggested he would drop his longstanding opposition to a third runway at Heathrow if he becomes prime minister, according to the Times.

The former mayor of London, who told his constituents he would “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and … stop the construction of that third runway,” refused to reassure campaigners against the runway earlier this week that he would cancel the scheme.

Related: Two-hour ‘dose’ of nature significantly boosts health – study

The Heathrow airspace and future operations consultation, which follows MPs’ approval of the third runway last year, indicates that 47 arrivals an hour and between 17 and 47 departures would fly directly over the park at below 900 metres. Heathrow’s flights are currently capped at 480,000 a year, but it wants to increase this by 25,000 in 2021 and further when the third runway is built.

The park was established by Kings Charles I as a hunting ground in the 17th century and stretches more than 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres).

Sir David Attenborough, in a recent documentary on the park, said steps had to be taken to protect it against increased human activity.