Transport noise: the health impacts of noise pollution

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Source: Health and Environment Alliance

Whilst living in cities, near airports or road and rail links, might prove useful for the commute, the noise levels can sometimes be too much to bear.

A growing body of research reveals, transport noise can cause sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, elevated hormone levels, psychological problems and even premature death; studies on children have identified cognitive impairment, worsened behaviour and diminished quality of life.

The European Commission acknowledges that traffic noise is one of the main local environmental problems in Europe and the source of an increasing number of complaints from the public. More widely, the negative effects of transport noise have been known for years, but in light of pressing air pollution problems, noise has often taken a back seat. The situation now appears to be changing. At the close of last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) released it's TERM 2008 report Transports at a crossroads, the first to contain an assessment of EU-wide noise data. The findings paint a bleak picture - 55% of those living in urban areas with more than 250 000 inhabitants in the European Union 27 member states (67 million people) endure daily road noise levels above the lower EU benchmark for excess exposure.

How does policy respond?

The response at policy level is complex. On the one hand, cutting transport volumes will address noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, other responses such as building new roads further from homes, may offer few ancillary benefits and can exacerbate other environmental problems.

Which ever way it is approached, reducing traffic is crucial in addressing transport’s environmental impacts - this does not extend so easily to trying to reduce noise volumes. The EEA state that reducing car traffic on roads with a high proportion of lorries and busses will have minimal impact on the overall traffic noise- as car noise is masked by the heaviest vehicles. Thus the noisiest vehicles have to be targeted first. However, even on roads where vehicles produce roughly the same amount of noise, a traffic reduction of at least 40 % would be needed to start perceiving reduced noise.

With this in mind then, The EEA state that policymakers must identify complementary, cost-effective measures to reduce noise at source - which will simultaneously help to abate transport's other environmental problems. Currently, many potential measures are already available:

  • Improvements to vehicles and aircraft aerodynamics and components, including low noise tyres, train wheels, brake-blocks, and landing gears;
  • Improvements to infrastructure, such as low noise road surfaces and rail tracks;
  • Urban planning that limits encroachment close to busy roads, railways or airports, and rules on the location, layout and acoustic quality of buildings;
  • Traffic management techniques, such as traffic calming, controlling the speed of road vehicles, and low noise operational procedures for aircraft;
  • Restricting access for the noisiest vehicles and aircraft
  • Noise barriers and improved soundproofing of dwellings

An integrated policy approach

EEA call for an integrated policy approach  using both market-based and regulatory measures to provide transport manufacturers, planners, consumers incentives to adopt new technologies and methods. They call on an example from France's air transport sector. For those living close to France’s ten largest airports, the organisation ACNUSA charges airlines according to aircraft noise levels and time of departure and fines airlines those that do not comply with noise restrictions. These fee forces airlines and their customers to take responsibility for the social costs of air travel. The strategy works to encourage flights at less disruptive times of day and to adopt technologies and practices that minimise noise. The revenues of the scheme are then used to subsidise soundproofing the exposed dwellings.

As recognition of the health impact of noise pollution, technology should facilitate the introduction of creative policies like France’s airport charging scheme across the entire transport sector.

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