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EU Gets Serious About Noise Pollution

Posted by Thomas Wiseman on Sep 21, 2012 7:00:00 AM

traffic noise in EU

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 shartraffic lights in EUe 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


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