Environmental noise leads to a disease burden second in magnitude only to that of air pollution, the report states.
"Noise pollution is not only an environmental nuisance but also a threat to public health," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, releasing the report on Wednesday. "We hope that this new evidence will prompt governments and local authorities to introduce noise control policies at the national and local levels, thus protecting the health of Europeans from this growing hazard."
One in three people experiences annoyance during the daytime and one in five has disturbed sleep at night because of noise from roads, railways and airports. This increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure, learning disabilities and tinnitus.
A plane skims rooftops on its approach to London's Heathrow Airport (Photo by Tomas Griger)
The new report presents the results of an international study, coordinated by WHO/Europe and supported by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, that reviews the evidence on health effects, provides guidance to quantify risks from environmental noise and estimates the burden of disease in western European countries.
WHO says better surveillance and data collection are needed in southeastern Europe and central Asia, where a lack of exposure data inhibits estimates of the extent of health effects.
In June, the European Commission is expected to release a proposal to update Directive 70/157/EEC covering the permissible sound level and the exhaust system of motor vehicles, first enacted in 1970.
"This new review of evidence is WHO's contribution to the policy process in the European Union," said Rokho Kim, a scientist specializing in noise and health at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. Dr. Kim coordinated the research report from his office in Bonn.
"We hope that it can influence the update of the European Union directive to include stricter limit values for noise pollution, and that it can be extended to other parts of the region," he said.
This new health evidence highlights the urgency of adopting more stringent EU vehicle noise standards, according to health, environment and sustainable transport acvocates.
Noisy Piazza Garibaldi, Naples, Italy (Photo by John Keogh)
The European Environmental Bureau, a coalition encompassing more than 140 groups in 31 countries, wants the WHO study to help strengthen the vehicle noise law.
"The review is long overdue," said Louise Duprez, policy officer at EEB, "and with this report reinforcing already-known health implications of noise there is no excuse not to come up with a more ambitious environmental noise directive."
"The Commission has an opportunity in the coming weeks to cut road traffic noise by half, and protect millions of Europeans from this health risk," said Nina Renshaw, deputy director at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based sustainable transport campaign group.
"The proposal for an update of the vehicle noise directive should set strict new noise standards for cars, vans, lorries and buses. Policy makers must act on this WHO report and cut road noise to benefit us all by protecting health, improving quality of life, and easing the strain on government healthcare budgets," said Renshaw.
According to the WHO study, 1.8 percent of heart attacks in high income European countries are attributed to traffic noise levels higher than 60 decibels, dB.
In 2009, WHO said in its guidelines for exposure to noise at night, "Long-term average exposure to levels above 55 dB, similar to the noise from a busy street, can trigger elevated blood pressure and heart attacks. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to such noise levels."
The existing EU vehicle noise directive sets standards for various types of cars and trucks from 74 decibels up to 80 decibels.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the EU and accounts for approximately 40 percent of healthcare budgets, Renshaw points out.
Noisy traffic in a residential neighborhood in eastern England. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)
A 2008 report by consultants CE for Transport & Environment found that noise from rail and road transport is linked to 50,000 fatal heart attacks every year in Europe and 200,000 cases of cardio-vascular disease.
"The new figures are worrying but the true impact of noise pollution on health is likely to be much higher," said Anne Stauffer, deputy director at Health and Environment Alliance, HEAL.
"Noise pollution is a critical public health problem. We hope that now the EU has the evidence, policy makers will make changes in transport and other legislation that will better protect citizens' health," said Stauffer.
HEAL is particularly concerned about the effect of traffic noise on children's learning abilities. During a children's health summit in Parma, Italy in March 2010, environment and health ministers committed to reducing the exposure of children to noise.
The Parma Declaration called on the WHO to issue "suitable guidelines" on environmental noise, which are expected shortly.
Some groups are more vulnerable to noise than others. "As children spend more time in bed than adults, they are more exposed to night noise," the WHO Regional Office for Europe said in October 2009, at the launch of its Night Noise Guidelines for Europe.
WHO's 2009 limit is an annual average night exposure not exceeding 40 decibels, the sound of a quiet street in a residential area.
European citizens are aware of the health impacts of traffic noise. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, almost half of all respondents believe that noise affects their health 'to a large extent' and another one-third said that it affects their health 'to some extent."
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