Almost half of all Europeans are exposed to traffic noise levels potentially dangerous to health, according to research commissioned by the sustainable transport campaign group European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E).1 Policymakers are urged to introduce stricter controls on vehicle-related noise.
Road and rail noise is linked to an estimated 50,000 fatal heart attacks and 200,000 cases of cardiovascular disease annually across Europe, according to the report carried out by Dutch environmental consultants CE Delft. The figures were extrapolated from public health statistics published for Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Such data are not yet available for the UK.
Evidence is mounting on the public health impacts of environmental noise (see p 28 ). The World Health Organization’s threshold for "serious annoyance" and onset of negative health effects from environmental noise is 55 decibels. The T&E study found that around 210 million citizens in the European Union are regularly exposed to 55dB or more of road noise and 35 million to the same level of rail noise. The costs to society, including health services and sick days, are at least €40 billion per year, T&E estimates.
The report refers to a case study in the Netherlands. The annual ‘burden of disease’ to the population due to traffic noise - estimated in terms of years of life lost due to premature death and years lived with a reduced level of health - was found to be almost double that of air pollution, but half that of traffic accidents.
The annual health loss due to traffic noise is shown to have increased between 1980 and 2000, and is projected to rise further over the next twenty years if there is no change in noise policy.
Nina Renshaw, noise policy officer at T&E, commented: "This research shows that the lack of decent regulation combined with increased traffic and a trend towards bigger, more powerful vehicles is literally proving to be a lethal combination for Europeans.
"Unlike air pollution, which most major European cities are now starting to tackle, noise has been ignored for decades…" Lack of reliable data on the health effects of noise and difficulty in quantifying the effects has been a hindrance to noise policy development.
Guidance for estimating the burden of disease from environmental noise will come later this year from the WHO when it publishes the results of a three-year pan-European study in December.
Based on its research, T&E claims the most effective way to reduce noise is to address it at source. Existing technologies for vehicles, tyres and road surfaces could together cut road noise levels by five decibels, equal to a reduction of 70%, it says. For rail traffic, regular polishing of railway tracks could achieve a noise reduction of five decibels, while upgrading the brake blocks of trains could reduce noise by a similar magnitude.
Vehicle noise emission limits in the UK have not been tightened since 1996 in accordance with the standards established by a 1992 EC Directive (ENDS Report 261, p 36 ). Revised tyre noise limits have repeatedly been postponed, although proposals for a new EU tyre noise Directive are expected in summer.
"The publication of this report is opportune," said Mary Stevens, noise policy officer at Environmental Protection UK. "As we await imminent consultation on the noise strategy England, and publication of the first noise maps for England and Wales, we hope this research will encourage government to accelerate integrated action towards managing transport noise…"
The UK was among only seven EU member states to submit the first round of completed noise maps to the European Commission on time at the end of last year, as required by the 2002 environmental noise Directive (ENDS Report 327, pp 50-51 ).
Noise action plans (NAPs) to control and reduce the harmful effects of noise exposure, if necessary, for these mapped areas must be in place by 18 July 2008 and submitted to the Commission six months later. A secondary round of mapping and action planning for lower priority areas is due to take place in 2012-13.
A spokesperson for the Environment Department (DEFRA) confirmed that the T&E study along with other research will feed into the action planning process. A report on environmental noise and health in the UK by a joint advisory group led by the Department of Health is due for publication in summer. A project funded by the Greater London Authority on the effects of noise and physical health risk in the capital will also shed more light on the scale and magnitude of the problem in this country.
DEFRA has fallen behind competent authorities elsewhere in the UK towards meeting the deadlines set by the environmental noise Directive. It has yet to publicise the full suite of first round noise maps and is still drawing up guidance on action planning.
In contrast, Scottish ministers have already consulted publicly on the draft NAP guidance for Scotland and are now working on a "robust" methodology for prioritisation.
The national noise strategy - originally promised for 2007 (ENDS Report 327, p 50-51 ) - has been subject to a number of delays rumoured to be the result of under-resourcing and clashes with other government departments. A DEFRA spokesperson told ENDS that work on the policy framework to cover all sources of ambient noise is still under way, but the department would not commit to a consultation date at the present time.