Traffic-related noise may account for more than one million healthy life years lost in Europe, according to the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s in-house science service.
That’s one million healthy life years lost due to traffic noise alone. If you’re still not alarmed by the effects of noise pollution on well-being, it’s time to pay closer attention.
Europe is getting serious about noise pollution, as it proved this past summer when London police abruptly shut down Paul McCarney and Bruce Springsteen in observance of local noise ordinance rules. Plenty of people were upset about that, but the fact is noise is having a seriously negative impact on the health and quality of our lives and the wildlife with whom we share this planet. Someone had to take a leadership role and begin the pioneering task of quieting the world. Europe has taken on the challenge in earnest.
It’s time to give the EU credit for not only creating fairly strict laws to curb noise pollution, but enforcing them as well. When it comes to noise ordinances anywhere in the world, they always seem to fall short when it gets down to enforcement.
EU Member States last week published a new set of common noise assessment methods that will make evaluating noise exposure easier, thus allowing officials to set up appropriate policies to reduce noise pollution across Europe. The new methods, formally known as Common Noise Assessment Methods in Europe (CNOSSOS-EU), evaluate noise from roadways, air traffic, rail, and industry, and provide consistent data on noise levels to which people are exposed.
This common set of noise assessment methods will be the basis by which officials obtain comparable figures by the end of 2013. All EU Member States will be required to start using the CNOSSOS methods for Europe’s next round of strategic noise mapping in 2017.
EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik calls noise a serious environmental risknoise a serious environmental riskto public health, especially in urban areas, due to increased traffic and inefficient urban planning. The CNOSSOS-EU will aid European Commission in coordinating the methods used to assess exposure to noise so that data collected from all 27 countries can be compared uniformly, and efficient solutions to noise exposure across Europe will be more effective. The concept is an EU-wide systematic approach to managing noise pollution.
I compare this approach to traffic laws in the U.S. – they’re universal. No matter where you drive in America, you know what yellow, red, and green lights mean. Roadway signage is immediately identifiable, and everyone – well, almost everyone – knows what is expected of them in order to comply with traffic laws anywhere in the U.S.
It makes sense that the EU is approaching its noise pollution issues this way, not just economically speaking, but enforcement will be more widely accepted and it seems that in a decade or so, Europeans will be uniformly adhering to noise ordinances. There is no other way any noise pollution solution is going to work.
I imagine there may be some resistance, or at least I think there would be here in the U.S., where noise is almost a civil right to many of us. Americans like their car stereos loud and their parties rambunctious, but as we all begin to realize that a noise-free restaurant meal, or hotel room, or home near an airport would be a welcome thing, it’s never going to happen without the kind of intensive planning and orchestration that the EU has so carefully planned and begun to instigate.
Are Americans ready to pull the plug on Springsteen at 10 p.m.? I think not, which is why Europe will beat us to peace and quiet by at least decade or more. They’ll leave us in their noise pollution dust if the same serious initiative isn’t taken this side of the pond.
Americans are suffering from the same noise-related sleep disorders, health effects, and hearing loss as the Europeans, and yet Americans are reluctant to give up some of the worst noise offenders – boom cars, for instance, which are illegal in some countries, continue to (literally) blow out the eardrums of drivers and passengers before they’re 20. Helicopters, motorcycles, and most forms of transportation are filling the environment with noise. We like our concerts and radios loud, we build our gymnasiums, restaurants, bars and hotels with inadequate consideration of acoustical consequences.
We are attached to our noise, although the love affair is waning as noise pollution has reached epidemic proportions globally. Like second hand cigarette smoke, eventually noise will be understood as the health hazard it is, and taking measures to curb it will become a universal effort. I hope.
If the U.S. were to adopt a common framework for noise assessment methods similar to the EU version, it could facilitate the preparation of detailed action plans to reduce and eventually prevent harmful noise levels in our everyday environments.
The EU’s Environmental Noise Directive was introduced in 2002, but the first EU-wide noise mapping exercise, performed in 2007, found considerable differences in assessment methods, data collection, and quality. Because of the inconsistency of the data collected in the first study, officials identified the need to devise the new common noise assessment methods being put in place now.
Some chilling stats:
In addition to traffic-related noise accounting for more than one million healthy life years lost in Europe, the economic costs of traffic, rail and road noise pollution across the EU were recently estimated at € 40 billion per year (just less than 52 billion U.S. dollars), equivalent to 0.35% of the EU's GDP.[i] According to the European Commission's 2011 White Paper on Transport, traffic noise-related external costs will increase €20 billion (about 26 billion U.S. dollars) per year by 2050 (compared to 2005) unless further action is taken.
Strategic noise maps identify EU priorities for action planning and to provide global assessments of noise exposure across Europe. The information they glean helps to inform the general public about the levels of noise to which they are exposed, to enable reliable estimates of noise-associated disease, and to inform the public about actions in progress to reduce noise pollution.
[i] Environment: Speaking the same language on noise exposure, Reference: IP/12/961, Brussels September 14, 2012
When it comes to combating noise pollution, how do U.S. communities take measure of a problem that often does not affect every listener the same way? Samantha Johnson wakes every night at 2 a.m., thanks to the train that barrels behind the house she has lived in for three years.
Her neighbor three houses up says she is never bothered by the train, and has never been woken at night.
“It’s hard for me to believe that any of my neighbors aren’t bothered by the train noise,” Johnson says. “My neighbor says she never hears the trains, and we have never adjusted to them.”
There are two railroad crossings in the downtown area of Johnson’s community, a bustling area with a mix of homes and shops, increasing auto traffic and both commuter and freight trains. After some local residents complained about noise from the train and the train whistle, town officials budgeted a study to determine whether a quiet zone should be created downtown.
To Johnson’s dismay, most of her town’s residents haven’t exactly rallied to the “quiet zone” cause.
“We have received a few complaints from three or four individuals," said Town Manager Ray Smithson.
“Our residents aren’t gathering en masse to demand we do something about noise, but we try to take the concerns of all our residents seriously, and creating a quiet zone may be a solution.”
Traffic, trains, construction crews hammering first thing in the morning, neighbors with power lawn mowers and noisy heat pumps have all created their fair share of noise.
But what constitutes noise to some people may barely register in the background to others.
John Hammond, an acoustical consultant, has found that noise tolerance is largely subjective. Some people live comfortably in city apartments surrounded by trains, traffic and people, while others living in an isolated country home are kept awake at night by crickets.
Noise is measured in decibels, which Hammond compared to air temperature. Generally, a level of 70 decibels is comfortable, just as 70 degrees is a pleasant temperature. When noise reaches 100 decibels, it hurts.
A soft whisper reaches about 30 decibels, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing. A normal conversation hits 60 decibels, a ringing telephone 80 decibels, a leaf blower 110 decibels and a balloon pop 157 decibels.
"It's a tolerance level," Hammond says. "Some people have zero noise tolerance, but for most people noise doesn’t become a problem until it interferes with what they're doing.”
For the most part, background noise such as traffic or even, for some people, airplanes soaring overhead are not what bug us.
A pure tone, a sound that stays in a narrow frequency range, is the most irritating - like the hum from a fluorescent light fixture. Noise that covers a range of frequencies, such as ocean waves or wind blowing through dried leaves, is not usually annoying.
"If you went out to an expressway and you listened to that sound, even though it's loud and you can't carry on a conversation, it's not particularly aggravating to you," Hammond said. "People will not tolerate a pure tone; for instance, if you had a flute and you played a constant, steady C; hat's like a pure tone, a very narrow frequency, and it can drive many people to distraction."
Studies are showing that excessive noise can damage hearing, disrupt sleep, induce stress and generally lower our quality of life. Noise tops the list of complaints people raise about the neighborhoods in which they live, and the hotels in which they spend vacation or business time.
Still, there are no blanket policies on noise at the national level. There was an Office of Noise Abatement and Control within the Environmental Protection Agency, but it was phased out in the early 1980s when federal officials decided noise was best regulated on a local level.
The states regulate traffic noise, conducting studies on new highways and building sound barriers where necessary. Some communities have come up with their own regulations, often after residents lodge noise complaints.
Noise laws vary from town to town. Some set decibel levels in its noise ordinances, while others rely on law and code enforcement officials to respond when noise levels become unreasonable. The problem is, when officials use a noise meter to measure the decibel level, more often than not the noise meter will show that the noisemaker is within the ordinance limits.
“Rarely is the complaint justified,” Hammond said.
While the decibel limits help lawmakers create ordinances, considering the subjective nature of noise complaints, one person can be unable to function due to noise that does not bother others around him.
We live in an increasingly noisy world. As population densities increase, buffer space between residences, office parks and recreational public space diminishes. Homes and offices are increasingly built closer to highways and industrial land uses. Often, noisy activities such as construction, roadway traffic and airline traffic are forced into close proximity with these noise-sensitive areas; not even hospitals and schools are spared.
Noise can degrade our quality of life, affect our health, interfere with sleep and adversely affect property values.
Luckily, more architects, construction managers and homeowners are taking proactive steps toward silencing existing noise problems and preventing new problems before lives are disrupted. Once noise levels are known (either by measurement or forecast) today’s planners and architects can minimize the effects of noise on surrounding areas using noise barriers and state-of-the-art sound proofing technology that didn’t exist just 10 years ago.
Noisy neighbors and activities can create unpleasant noise levels in some of the quietest areas. Motorcycles, loud music, late night parties and even home equipment such as heat pumps and air conditioning units can disturb the neighborhood peace and quiet that most of us long for when we’re at home.
Traffic noise is determined by the daily and peak-hour volume of traffic, travel speed, number of lanes, terrain, type of vehicles and the location of the highway in proximity to residential properties, hotels, churches, schools, hospitals, and all locations that require a quiet setting. Noise mitigation on a busy highway or a roadway is often accomplished with a noise barrier designed specifically for this type of setting. Sound abatement window treatments and walls can also be used to reduce noise levels indoors. The FHWA Traffic Noise Model (TNM) is used to analyze and predict traffic noise based specific parameters, and is often used to design adequate noise barriers.
Airliners are loudest on take-off, especially for locations behind and under the departure flight path. Landing aircraft are typically much quieter. The FAA has published the Integrated Noise Model (INM) and Helicopter Noise Model (HNM). These computer models are used to generate noise contours or "footprints" of average noise levels based on the number of operations and aircraft types. Areas exposed to levels above Ldn (Day Night Level) 65 are considered to be "noise impacted,” and nearby homes and buildings would benefit tremendously from noise barriers and other noise abatement solutions.
Light rail train and railroad operations can also raise noise to significant levels. DOT regulations require that a horn or signal at certain sound levels be used at road crossings. Diesel locomotives produce a great deal of low frequency noise. Once the locomotive is past, squealing wheels, air brakes and other track noises remain. Standard FTA methodology is used to predict railway noise, based on number of trains, track conditions, speed, grade, and similar factors.
The noise levels can make living near train or railroad operations unbearable unless the proper sound abatement solutions are put in place. With light rail train construction on the rise across the U.S., planners have begun incorporating noise barrier systems into existing and new train projects wherever noise is a problem.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies specify acceptable noise levels for residential projects.
For sites exposed to noise above Ldn 60, there is the potential for impact. Sites exposed to outdoor noise up to Ldn 65 are considered “normally acceptable” for residential development. HUD requires a noise study whenever the site is within certain distances of major roads, rail lines or airports. The study must examine both present and future conditions, projected at least ten years out (although twenty years is the standard of practice.)
Noise is fast becoming one of the most pressing public health issues in society today. Noise pollution affects everyone, and long term health projections for people subjected to high noise levels over continuous periods of time are bleak; stress, heart disease, hearing loss and other noise-related maladies are becoming serious problems worldwide. Luckily, there are proven methods of reducing noise and creating healthier living spaces.