While we’re all aware of the term noise pollution, most of us regard it as just an irritant we have to put up with. The construction site near the office, the busy road near the children’s school, the flight path roaring overhead – such noise, we tell ourselves, is the price we pay for living in densely populated environments like cities.
Yet we might not be quite so complacent if we were more aware how bad noise pollution is for our health. For example, did you know that people living with an average of 55-80 decibels a day are more likely to suffer from high-blood pressure and cardiovascular ailments due to stress? Or that noise over 45 decibels at night can interfere with our sleep patterns, meaning we function less effectively during the day?
Such effects were confirmed in a recent study by Imperial College London, which analysed data from 144,000 adults, reinforcing evidence from the World Health Organisation, which rates noise pollution as the second largest environmental cause of health problems after air quality.
Road traffic is the main culprit
The vast majority of noise pollution in Europe is caused by vehicular traffic on our roads – about 70 percent of it, according to European Environment Agency (EEA) statistics. Around 100 million people on the continent are subject to road traffic noise in excessive of 55 decibels, with more than 32 million exposed to over 65 decibels, while a good night’s sleep is not possible for around 50 million Europeans because of noise levels.
Concerning though these statistics are, a major solution is already with us – electric vehicles (EVs). As well as being hugely beneficial when it comes to air pollution, EVs produce nowhere near the same level of noise as gas-guzzling vehicles.
The world’s best-selling EV, the Nissan LEAF, has a running engine noise level so low – a mere 20 decibels – that it is the equivalent of a household fan. Given that over 250,000 LEAFs have been sold worldwide, and that the average noise level for a car is about 50 decibels, that’s a ‘saving’ in terms of noise pollution of seven and a half million decibels – and counting. In fact, so quiet is the Nissan LEAF that at very low speeds it employs a VSP system (Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians) that emits a breathy whistle to make its presence known.
What’s certain is that the balance is likely to tip in favour of EVs like the LEAF in the next ten years, with cities like Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich, Athens and Paris (among others) already planning to ban diesel vehicles over that period. Add to this the fact that by 2022, EVs will be cheaper to buy and run than conventional cars, and the present clatter of traffic will become an issue of the past.
Mapping urban noise
While less road noise will be a significant battle won, there is still much to do. The EEA points out that rail and air traffic, as well as noise produced by industry, are also major factors in creating an urban din. Colin Nugent, an EEA noise pollution expert, says, “We have legislation in place, including the Environmental Noise Directive (END), which requires assessments to be done by noise mapping and action plans to be drawn up.”
These ‘noise maps’ display spatial information on noise exposure in Europe. “The more complete data we have,” says Colin, “the more we can improve our knowledge of the problem, and policy makers will be better informed to take better action.”
Dovetailing with this is a research project at the Free University of Brussels, which has developed the NoiseTube App, enabling people to use their phone to register levels of noise around the city. This is then made available to the public who can avoid noisier areas or times of peak noise, while councils can use the data to target specific areas where noise pollution is at its worst.
But what can be done about noise that is unavoidable? In April 2017, the Noise in Europe conference took place and a number of initiatives are already under way. In Paris, for example, not only have they started to restrict the use of cars in certain areas, they have also been experimenting with new road surfaces that absorb more noise, with 10 percent of the city’s ring road now treated in this way.
Meanwhile, Bilbao in Spain is looking to establish ‘sonic islands’ in urban areas where, through effective soundproofing, people can gather to relax and experience some quietude amid the city’s cacophony.
Similarly in Florence, Italy, they’re thinking about the effects of urban noise on children, and are creating quiet areas in the immediate vicinity of schools. Across Europe, we’re also seeing the increasing use of noise screens along railway lines, roads and near airports, all in an effort to reduce harmful decibel levels.
What we can do
There are other actions we, as individuals, can do to help tackle noise pollution. Buying a Nissan EV would certainly be one – it is worth remembering that the number of electric charging stations are increasing at a rapid rate, meaning the transition to EV from petrol and diesel is well being supported.
Also consider the tyres you use – Europe has a labelling system for road tyres that includes information on noise emissions. Likewise, when buying consumer goods like fridges or washing machines, look for ones that come with a quiet mark or equivalent.
On a personal level, think about your individual noise output (noise-cancelling headphones, stopping your dog from barking, having a ‘quiet space’ in your homes away from electronics and machines) while also spending more time in noise-reducing environments such as natural spots, museums and galleries, away from the busy city roads.
In addition, being mindful of heavy traffic spots and commuting times mean you can avoid these, and consider getting out of the city for short breaks whenever possible.
Ultimately, it will be a combination of the measures presently being adopted, as well as radical new technologies such as sound proofing material that completely absorbs and redirects sound waves, which will see our urban environments become quieter and less stressful in the next decade.
In fact you could say we’re about to enter a golden age of silence.
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