Last reviewed 3 February 2015

Noise pollution is a growing problem that has a negative impact on people and wildlife. Rick Gould explores the main findings of two new reports on the subject.

Every Christmas, it is hard to miss hearing the catchy, festive song by the 1970s pop band, Slade. Another of the band’s big hits from that decade was called Come on Feel the Noise. If current trends continue, this could become an appropriate theme for the whole year, every year, because according to both national and international environmental regulators, noise pollution is growing as fast as Slade’s sales every Christmas.

Around the time that is was impossible to go anywhere in the UK without hearing Slade’s Christmas tune, the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published reports on noise and its impacts. The EEA’s 2014 report, Noise in Europe examined the growing impact of noise in Europe –— especially noise from traffic — while Defra’s Environmental Noise: Valuing Impacts on: Sleep Disturbance, Annoyance, Hypertension, Productivity and Quiet re-examined and then refined the methods for calculating the economic impacts of environmental noise.

So what were the findings in the reports? According to the EEA, noise pollution is a growing problem that has significant, severe and negative impacts on people and wildlife. In simple terms, the deaths of thousands of Europeans annually can be linked to noise pollution, tens of thousands are admitted to hospital as a result of its effects, hundreds of thousands of people a year suffer the effects of hypertension because of noise, while many millions more are either annoyed by noise pollution, deprived of sleep through it, or both. Meanwhile, Defra’s revised methodologies show that these health impacts are costly to both individuals and the state.

Environmental noise in context

Around the turn of the century, the World Health Organization (WHO) published tables of recommended thresholds for noise pollution. Although these are recommendations and the European Commission’s Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC) does not contain mandatory limits for levels of environmental noise, WHO’s recommended thresholds have been widely used as guidelines. This is because the thresholds are based on peer-reviewed scientific research.

This research in turn shows that, in addition to the stress and diminished quality of life caused by noise pollution, the biggest impacts are through disturbed sleep and hypertension.

There is a wealth of data and research that demonstrates that both of these medical conditions can directly lead to significant illnesses such as cardio-vascular disease, and hence increased mortality and premature death.

About 10 years after the EC published the Environmental Noise Directive, WHO published Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise: Quantification of Healthy Life Years Lost in Europe (2011) on the impacts that noise has on human health. The report showed that a high proportion of the world’s population is exposed to harmful levels of noise, especially within cities. So how does Europe fair? According to the EEA, we are also suffering, especially from traffic noise.

Noise in Europe

The Environmental Noise Directive required European Member States to assess environmental noise in a harmonised and uniform manner, and then draw up noise-maps of exposure in order to develop effective, long-term strategies to combat noise pollution. Although far from complete, the EEA has used such data to draw up Europe-wide exposure maps. When linked to epidemiological data, and when taking into account other influences on human health, the EEA was able to quantify the numbers of people directly or indirectly affected by noise pollution. So what did the EEA find?

The EEA used the WHO thresholds guidelines; these show that average background levels above 55 Decibels (dB) are sufficient to at least annoy people, while at night, an average level above 30dB in a bedroom — or transient levels above 45dB — are enough to disturb the sleep of at least a significant proportion of the population. Based on these thresholds and the existing noise maps, at least 125 million people would be subjected to noise levels above the 55dB threshold; of these, about 20 million would be affected to the point that they would be considered as annoyed, while 8 million would be likely to have their sleep disturbed.

Scientific research has shown a clear connection between chronic noise exposure and hypertension, as well as sleep disturbance. According to the EEA, every year, noise causes hypertension in an extra 900,000 people, while the effects of either this condition or chronic sleep disturbance send about 43,000 people to hospital. Meanwhile, the EEA estimates that about 10,000 people annually die prematurely because of noise pollution.

Wildlife is also affected by environmental noise, based on the population dynamics of species in noisy areas; in the UK, although Defra’s report focused on the economic impacts of noise pollution, the report echoed many of the findings from the EEA.

Defra's findings

Defra has developed a quantitative approach to assessing environmental noise, in order to calculate the costs of noise pollution. Defra examined areas such as the costs of sleep disturbance, hypertension and the loss of productivity.

Like the EEA’s research, Defra’s methods are based on scientific research. The report from last December examined the latest research and updated the methods accordingly. The report therefore contains several formulae and methods that describe how regulators and investigators can quantify the economic impacts of noise pollution, when looking at the location of people and the matching noise maps.

For example, regarding hypertension, Defra has determined that for every 1dB increase in noise levels, an extra 7 people from every 1000 households could be expected to suffer from this illness. For each of these affected people, there is a cost to every household — and hence the state — as noise levels increase. Overall, noise pollution is costly to society. According to Defra, the cost to Europe’s economies is likely to be in the order of tens of billions of pounds each year, with sleep disturbance and hypertension accounting for the highest costs. Moreover, the impacts and costs could be even higher, according to the EEA. Its own research was based on available data, which itself is not yet complete.