Good practice guide on noise exposure and potential health effects


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

The Expert Panel on Noise (EPoN) is a working group that supports the European Environment Agency and European Commission with the implementation and development of an effective noise policy for Europe. The group aims to build upon tasks delivered by previous working groups, particularly regarding Directive 2002/49/EC relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise.

This good practice guide is intended to assist policymakers, competent authorities and any other interested parties in understanding and fulfilling the requirements of the directive by making recommendations on linking action planning to recent evidence relating to the health impacts of environmental noise and, among others, the Night Noise Guidelines for Europe as recently presented by the World Health Organisation. The contents should not be considered as an official position statement of the European Commission. Only the text of the directive is applicable in law at Community level. If in any circumstance, the guidance contained in this good practice guide seems to be at variance with the directive, then the text of the directive should be applied.


1.1 Scope of this paper

The main purpose of this document is to present current knowledge about the health effects of noise. The emphasis is first of all to provide end users with practical and validated tools to calculate health impacts of noise in all kinds of strategic noise studies such as the action plans required by the Environmental Noise Directive (i) (END) or any environmental impact statements. The basis of this is a number of recent reviews carried out by well known institutions like WHO, National Health and Environment departments and professional organisations. No full bibliography is provided but the key statements are referenced and in the reference list, some documents are highlighted which may serve as further reading.

Noise is normally defined as 'unwanted sound'. A more precise definition could be: noise is audible sound that causes disturbance, impairment or health damage. The terms 'noise' and 'sound' are often synonymously used when the purely acoustical dimension is meant (e.g. noise level, noise indicator, noise regulation, noise limit, noise standard, noise action plan, aircraft noise, road traffic noise, occupational noise). Noise annoyance, in contrast, is a term used in general for all negative feelings such as disturbance, dissatisfaction, displeasure, irritation and nuisance (ii). Adverse effects of noise occur when intended activities of the individual are disturbed. The sound level of the acoustic stimulus, its psycho‑acoustical sound characteristics, the time of its occurrence, its time course, its frequency spectrum and its informational content modify the reaction.

During sleep, however, unconscious activation of the autonomous nervous system takes place without cortical (cognitive) control, due to direct interaction between the hearing nerve and higher structures of the central nervous system. Noise indicators such as Lden and Lnight, regardless of any weighing factors, describe the exposure situation. The link between exposure and outcome (other terms: endpoint, reaction, response) is given by reasonably well-established exposure-response curves which are derived from research into noise effects. Large parts of this document deal with exposure-response curves that can be used for impact assessment. The content of this document was finalised in June 2010. The EPoN reserves the right to issue an update to the advice contained in the document at a time when the members consider it appropriate to do so.

1.2 Definitions of health

For the purpose of this document the larger definition of health is used. Although several other definitions of health are in use or have been proposed (see Annex I for an overview), the one that comes close to the intentions of this document is the original definition from the WHO-charter:

Health is a state of complete

mental, and
social well-being
and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO, 1946).

Figure 1.1 illustrates how exposure to noise affects health and wellbeing. If a certain population is exposed to substantial noise, many people will notice it and develop adverse feelings to this. Within a part of this exposed population, stress reactions, sleep-stage changes and other biological and biophysical effects may occur. These may in turn increase risk factors like blood pressure. For a relatively small part of the population these factors may then develop into clinical symptoms like insomnia and cardiovascular diseases which, as a consequence, can even increase the death rate.

The various reviews depict complex models for the relations between noise and stress and noise and sleep disturbance. Most of the steps in the models have been verified experimentally, although for some only qualitatively. In general these models are accepted as describing the relations between noise and health.


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