The serious impact of noise on health outcomes is an emerging issue. I blogged last year about a World Health Organisation study on noise impact in Europe which suggested – among other things – that as many people died in the UK because of the effects of persistent traffic noise as in collisions. Now a similar study commissioned by the European sustainability group Transport and Environment has found that transport noise (car and rail) is responsible for 50,000 deaths a year in Europe and has external costs of €40bln a year (90% from traffic).

The WHO sets the level at which noise produces negative health effects at 55dB, and the study estimates that 210 million Europeans are exposed to this level of noise regularly as a result of road noise, and another 35 m through rail. The problem has got worse since 1980, and is expected to worsen further to 2020, as a result of increased traffic, larger (and noisier) vehicles, and EU delays in implementing regulation on tyre noise.

The effects of noise fall more heavily on the vulnerable – old, poor and children. Noise has an impact on learning. The evidence of links to heart disease are now strong; those to high blood pressure are increasing; but there is only limited evidence of links to mental illness.

EU noise regulations haven’t been tightened since 1995, and Transport & Environment make the distinction between responses to noise pollution and to air pollution. Its noise policy officer, Nina Renshaw, commented,

“Unlike air pollution, which most major European cities are now starting to tackle, noise has been ignored for decades as the problem has worsened and the negative impacts on society have increased”.

One of the problems might be that the link between noise and poor health is still largely invisible. It also worsens quite rapidly as noise levels increase. This is how the health/noise connection works:

“Exposure to traffic noise triggers the release of certain hormones, which can lead to changes in blood pressure and to a greater risk of some heart diseases … Noise triggers the production of stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline, which is especially dangerous over long periods of exposure. For people living in streets with average noise levels above 65-70 decibels, the risk of heart disease is on average 20% higher compared with people in quieter streets. And while some noise problems get better as people think they are getting used to them, noise-related cardiovascular problems show no signs of improving with time.”

The full report by CE Delft is worth reading, especially the summary, which notes both the health evidence and the policy failings, and suggests that there is n”plenty of scope” for noise reduction, short-term and long-term, with some political will.