The Global Battle Against Noise Pollution

Until a few decades ago noise was seen as no more than a nuisance of modern urban life. Then research began to show that loud, but not uncommon, noise could damage hearing. And numerous studies indicated that many widespread sources of sound near schools impaired children’s ability to learn.

More recently the World Health Organization (WHO), using data from pioneer studies done in several European countries, including Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, has demonstrated that noise can be a major killer. Awake or even asleep your brain and body react to sounds that increase the levels of stress hormones. This can raise blood pressure significantly and lead to heart disease and stroke. The WHO estimates that noise is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths each year in Europe alone. The research confirms that noise is also responsible for more subtle damaging effects of varying severity, including tinnitis — constant noise in the ears — of course hearing loss, and sleep disturbance.   

The threat from noise in industrial countries raises problems similar in some respects to that of climate change. Although the methods of achieving solutions are of course different, in both cases reaching those solutions will be extremely difficult and extremely expensive.

The European Union (EU) has set a limited goal for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, even if that goal is reached it won’t do much to reduce climate change. And reaching that goal is far from certain. 

The EU’s battle against noise pollution so far hasn’t achieved much success either. In 2002 it issued an anti-noise directive; the first stage requires mapping noise levels in all European cities with at least 250,000 people, but there are formidable problems in doing so. For one thing, estimating exposure to loud sound sources is complicated by the constantly changing infrastructure and traffic patterns. Another complication is that noise is not the same as loudness. "Loudness is physical and can be measured in decibels with a sound meter, but noise is a psychological phenomenon," says Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp, an environmental acoustician at the Technical University in Berlin. People are far more flexible in their tolerance of sound levels, depending on the context and the source. Relatively natural sounds from birds and water, for example, can put people at ease, whereas quieter sources, such as an electrical buzz, cause stress.

A conference of European acoustic scientists and policymakers was held in Paris in mid-July to assess the efforts to dare against noise. The results have not been encouraging. So far despite a June 2007 deadline for the noise maps, only a few European cities have charted them. Those that miss the deadline will face stiff fines in a few years.

According to attendees at the Paris conference, even fewer cities are close to proposing an antinoise action plan. Most conferees admitted that they weren’t close to meeting an 18 July deadline for the requisite action plan. Berlin is a striking exception to these failures. Not only has the city mapped its noise, but also it has worked out a plan by which it will reduce urban noise from sources such as traffic.  

When all the noise maps are finally charted and the action plans are completed, an even more daunting phase opens up. As one acoustic consultant points out, "once you have an action plan then you have to start spending real money to address the problem, and that will cost billions."

If deadly noise in Europe and the reaction to it is in some respects analogous to dealing with global warming, the US response to the threat — or lack of response — is depressingly similar to its response to climate change. John Millet, US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) spokesman contacted by New Scientist stated, "We’ve always acknowledged that noise can exacerbate serious health problems over and beyond damage to hearing. It was clear to us in the 1980s and before that noise pollution was serious and raises stress levels, and causes a wide array of health issues including cardiovascular impacts, blood pressure, even heart attacks to those who are susceptible."

While EPA scientists played a leading role in exposing the threat of noise, the response of the government was disgraceful. The Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was shut down in the early 1980s and anti-noise regulation was turned over to the frequently unfocussed efforts of individual states and cities. Millet acknowledges that today there "isn’t any funding for noise pollution at the US EPA."

The research by EPA scientists could have been valuable in today’s anti-noise efforts in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. The Reagan Administration’s decision to terminate this research and to scrap efforts to protect human health threatened by noise wasn’t scientific and it certainly wasn’t intelligent. It was a political decision and like many political decisions in recent years not one based on the needs of people.

President Reagan’s oft-repeated belief was that government isn’t the solution, government is the problem. It seems like a strangely antidemocratic mantra to live by, but the president obviously felt free to apply it to what had been an exemplary struggle against the hazard of noise. The damage to people’s health was immense.

The EU can do much better. The statistics on the hazard to health generated by the WHO show how high the stakes are. And logically the people of Europe can be expected to demand results based on the evidence about that hazard, not on some illogical feelings about the role of democratic government.   

An important problem remains that has received too little attention. Noise, and therefore its many damaging effects, is certainly increasing in regions besides Europe and the US. It’s not as widely distributed as in the highly industrialized countries, but some localities are as hard hit as anywhere in the world, and they are just as susceptible to the damage to hearing, to education, and to health in general. Anti-noise programs in these localities could provide a valuable social benefit and give an opportunity to organizations and agencies committed to improving health.