“Noise pollution is a form of violence,” said Voula Pagagianni, who is an educator and the president of the Hellenic Young Children’s University. “[It is] an unrecognized danger that threatens the health of everyone.”
Noise pollution is currently the second most significant environmental risk factor for our health, after air pollution. As a result, the European Union (EU) set the maximum noise exposure limit for people at 55 decibels (dB) during the day and 50 dB during the night. The World Health Organization’s guidelines are even stricter. In order to counteract the negative impact of noise pollution on health, it recommends that external sound levels should not exceed 40 dB at night — a level of noise around equal to that of a quiet road in a residential area.
The United States has much higher — some would say “lower” — standards. The U.S. has a standard for occupational noise pollution and one for environmental noise pollution. The first refers to the sounds and noises in your workplace; people who work industrial and manual labor jobs are more likely to encounter higher thresholds for noise exposure. Environmental noise might include what you hear on your daily walk or when you are sleeping at night. Ideally, these environs would result in less noise exposure.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health limits occupational noise exposures to 85 dB at a sustained rate during an 8-hour work day. That is the equivalent of listening to a chainsaw stationed 10 meters (roughly 33 feet) away from you, for eight hours a day. Enduring this exposure for 40 hours in a week could lead to hearing loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noise-induced hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in the country.
In the Seattle area, a noise code limits the amount of noise outside coming from roadways, machinery and construction, but it doesn’t apply to public nuisances (like loud music, people yelling, etc.).
According to data from an interactive National Transportation Noise Map, the highest concentrations of traffic and aviation noise in the Pacific Northwest are near the downtown Seattle core and moving south along the city’s industrial district and down South King County, including Renton, SeaTac and Des Moines. Areas on the Eastside, West Seattle and North Seattle neighborhoods are mapped as having noise exposure around 40db, similar to what the EU recommends for environmental noise exposures.
The Worldwide Hearing Index — a 2017 study by Mimi Hearing Technologies of 50 cities — found the highest levels of noise pollution are observed in Guangzhou, China. Delhi is second, followed by Cairo, Mumbai, Istanbul and Beijing. Barcelona is number seven on the list, while Mexico City, Paris and Buenos Aires are eighth, ninth and 10th. In contrast, the five quietest cities in the world are Zurich, Vienna, Oslo, Munich and Stockholm, followed by Dusseldorf; Hamburg; Portland, Oregon; Cologne and Amsterdam.
Several European and non-European countries are adopting a series of measures by which to limit noise pollution and its negative effects. Germany, for example, has been experimenting since 2007 with the use of special paving materials for roads that reduce the noise caused by car wheels; trains started having so-called ‘quiet zones’ in designated wagons, where additional noise is forbidden, at around the same time.
In Oslo, urban quiet zones are mostly designated for use for recreation. In fact, 35 percent of the city’s residents live less than 300 meters from such a zone. Ellen Johnson, from the city’s Agency of Urban Environment, says that the municipality’s action plan to address noise pollution focuses on areas of dense urban development in central areas and around urban transport stations, furthering programs that promote walking and cycling and highlighting the importance of protecting trees, since natural sounds contribute positively to the city’s soundscape. Moreover, the speed limit in the center of Oslo is 30 kilometers per hour (roughly 18 mph), the rails of the tram and underground networks have been upgraded, and the port freight station was moved out of the city.
In past years, Stockholm has also made significant efforts to reduce noise pollution. In 1970, 200,000 residents were exposed to high levels of noise in their apartments. Today, this number has been reduced to a few thousand: a reduction of around 80 percent. The installation of 60 kilometers of acoustic fencing and more than 50,000 soundproof windows in 17,000 flats have brought positive results. The increased shift to the use of tires without studs has allowed for the use of new types of asphalt and has resulted in lower levels of noise at street level. The construction of road tunnels has also resulted in a reduction in local noise levels, and heavy vehicles are prohibited from using the roads at night.
For its part, the city of Vienna has taken steps to ensure, among other things, extensions of bike lanes and their underground transportation network; additions of traffic-calming measures on roads; conversions of roads into pedestrian walkways; provisions of subsidies for the installation of special windows in homes along main roads; and the modernization of public transport. Moreover, because the noise created by vehicles is dependent, in part, on the speed at which they travel, so-called “Tempo 30” zones have been put in place, where the speed limit for vehicles is 30 kilometers per hour. In fact, years ago, the Municipal Department of Environmental Protection ran a pilot program with the name SYLVIE. It was a process of mediation between the involved parties — namely, those who produced sound and those who were impacted by it — and it attempted to find a joint solution to the problem. It was then followed by another similar program.
Yet another model city is Zurich. Anke Poiger is the head of communication in the Safety, Security, Health and Environment Administrative Department of the city. She said that “car trips are the most important source of noise in the city, which is why we have implemented a 25-year policy called ‘Urban Traffic 2025’ in order to minimize car traffic and its negative effects. This is a program that includes the expansion of the public transport network, the prioritization of public transport over car traffic, the promotion of bicycle use, the creation of an attractive pedestrian trail network, and the expansion of Tempo 30 zones. In addition, the City Council has approved a program for electric buses, which are quieter than the conventional ones.”
For her part, Sonja Zöchling, the head of corporate communication at Zurich airport, informed us that in order to protect residents of the surrounding area from the noise caused by planes, the residents were provided with special soundproofing windows. The residents pay for the installation themselves and they can submit a request for compensation, as this is something that they are entitled to. In addition, the airport operates from 6 a.m. to 11.30 p.m., but after 11 p.m. it is only used in special circumstances; for example, to facilitate the movement of aircraft when traffic is increased or for delayed flights.
The results of a survey conducted in 62 European cities shows that Istanbul (72 percent), Bucharest (67 percent), Palermo (66 percent) and Athens (66 percent) are the urban centers with the least satisfied residents in terms of the noise levels experienced in their daily lives.
“These numbers do not surprise us. They are to be expected in big cities,” said Dr. Konstantinos Vogiatzis, professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of Thessaly and national representative of the European Noise Committee. “In addition, let us keep in mind that the residents are not continuously exposed to a constant intensity of noise.”
“Perhaps the best way to deal with noise pollution is prevention — to not make noise. It is through our individual attitudes that we can contribute to the reduction of noise emissions,” said Athanasios Trochidis, emeritus professor in the civil engineering department of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
“Unfortunately, in Greece, entertainment, lifestyle, and even the act of being outside, are often associated with noise and agitation,” added Nikos Barkas, professor at the Democritus University of Thrace in the Department of Architectural Engineering and president of the Hellenic Institute of Acoustics. “We suffer from a lack of education on how to behave so as not to be loud.”
A complex burden
Research that focuses on the health impacts of noise is on the rise, especially in relation to noise from vehicles, aviation, industry and some recreational activities. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study by the World Health Organization, all of the health problems caused by noise pollution result in about 1 to 1.6 million years of healthy living lost due to illness, disability and death (DALYs) in the EU every year.
The most common problem related to our hearing is tinnitus; that is, the perception of a sound like whistling or ringing that cannot be attributed to an external source. In some people, tinnitus can cause several problems, such as irritability, reduced efficiency and a limited social life. However, the effects of noise on hearing can also include more serious problems, such as hearing injury or hearing loss. More than 1 billion young people aged 12 to 35 are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational areas. According to the CDC, 25 million Americans have experienced prolonged tinnitus at least once in the past year.
“Loud noises also increase heart rate and can trigger arrhythmias or worsen the condition of patients with cardiovascular failure or coronary heart disease,” explains Polyxeni Nicolopoulou-Stamati, professor of Environmental Pathology at the Medical School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. It is estimated that the inhabitants of developed European countries lose about 61,000 collective years of healthy life each year due to cases of heart disease that are associated with noise pollution.
The quality of our sleep is also negatively affected by noise pollution. This is because our bodies recognize, evaluate and react to environmental noise, even when we are asleep. According to conservative estimates, sleep disorders (such as difficulty in falling asleep and frequent awakenings) that are caused by noise pollution cost Europeans living in cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants 903,000 years of healthy living per year.
Our cognitive functions can also be affected by noise pollution. This is particularly the case for school-age children, as exposure to noise impairs their educational performance and affects skills related to the comprehension of written language, memorization and concentration.
Noise also has psychological effects on human beings. The overriding effect is annoyance, the feeling of frustration and discomfort and the lack of satisfaction that occurs when noise blocks our thoughts and activities. One in three Europeans suffers from noise pollution during the day, with members of the EU population living in cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants losing a total of 654,000 DALYs.
Noise pollution also affects other living organisms. A study published in the records of the Hellenic National Academy of Sciences showed that city noise and the noise from planes can harm populations of hatchlings and adults in three species of birds. These species showed signs of chronic stress, such as the deregulation of stress hormone secretions, which was possibly due to increased stress, distraction and overstimulation. As for marine organisms, a review of 115 studies has shown that noise pollution from ship engines and sonar can affect the communication, reproduction, development and even the survival of fish and invertebrates.
Nature can be noisy — whether these noises are those of the birds chirping or thunder and strong winds — but the natural environment creates and uses these sounds as a network of information. Most animals recognize and use them. When we add artificial and unknown sounds to the natural soundscape, the acoustic environment of organisms is affected and it results in problems such as difficulties with finding food or a potential mate, as well as with regard to avoiding predators.
“Noise pollution is a factor in the deterioration of our quality of life,” Barkas concluded. This is why it is crucial that we change our attitude to noise pollution and take action to address the problem.
Translated from Greek by Antigone Debbaut and given local relevance by Kamna Shastri of Real Change
Courtesy of Shedia / INSP.ngo
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.