Despite some regulation, noise has been something of a Cinderella of environmental pollution, perhaps because it is often regarded as annoying rather than life threatening. A new (if preliminary) study from the World Health Organisation has quantified the health costs of noise in Europe. They are strikingly high.

According to a report in New Scientist (subscription required, news report here), the WHO found that “Thousands of people around the world may be dying prematurely or succumbing to disease through the effects of noise exposure”.

The Telegraph’s Roger Highfield summarised the science as follows:

“Though preliminary, the WHO’s findings suggest that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for three per cent of deaths from ischaemic heart disease in Europe – typically strokes and heart attacks.

Given that 7 million people around Europe die each year from heart disease, that would put the toll from exposure to noise at around 210,000 deaths. In England, heart disease kills 110,000 people annually, so the deaths linked to noise could be around 3,300.”

In other words, almost as many people are killed by the indirect effects of traffic noise in the UK as die in vehicle collisions.

The trends on perceptions of noise are also revealing. The UK’s National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) showed that noise had a “major impact” for 45 per cent of respondents, compared with 35 per cent a year earlier, while noise complaints to councils have increase five-fold over 20 years.

Researchers believe that noise provokes a stress response, and it is this that is damaging to health. Our brain monitors noise even while we are asleep. Health effects start to be seen at around 50dB, which is the noise level of light traffic. As well as stress-related heart disease, exposure to noise also has significant effects on learning abilities, memory, and recall.

In this context it is worth noting recent research (opens summary in pdf) that found aviation noise to be a ‘significant problem’ across London – a problem that will be increased by the planned third runway. (The study was commissioned by the airport opposition group HACAN, funded by the Greater London Authority, and carried out by an independent consultancy: news report here).

Of course, there is also a significant equity issue buried in this; typically people in poorer communities are more likely to be exposed to the indirect effects of noise. (Busier roads are more likely to go through them.) According to the British Association’s news digest, EU legisation due to take effect by the end of the year will require all cities of over 250,000 inhabitants to produce digitised sound maps that highlight noise pollution hotspots.

Measures such as using low-noise tyres and road surfaces, erecting anti-noise barriers and rerouting traffic to avoid schools and hospitals could be implented. Of course, reducing traffic (and aviation) volumes would also help. I expect to see noise equity issues tested in the courts sooner rather than later.