Noise and public health – why we need more action

city scape - west london Work to raise awareness of the public health and environmental impacts of noise has seen sporadic progress, and like air pollution, noise only comes to the wider attention of public and policy makers when it causes extreme problems. Noise Action Week gives an opportunity for everyone working to reduce the impact of noise to be heard.

Last week we saw air pollution, often dubbed the silent killer, reveal itself. Saharan dust enhanced the visibility of our everyday emissions, forming a smog smothering swathes of the country. As the nation coughed and called 999 for breathing help, air pollution actually made the news with campaigners and commentators given air time to criticise lack of action.

Another ubiquitous pollutant that is far from silent, with largely invisible impacts, is noise. There are few of us who have not heard, and sometimes felt, the impacts of noise – whether it be thumping bass from a neighbours’ late night party, the incessant 24 hour drone of traffic or the barking of bored dogs.

Like air pollution, noise affects our quality of life and health – arguably more noticeably – but even less notice is taken of the overall health and environmental impacts of noise than of air. Like air pollution, noise is complex and its sources varied. It is imposed on us by others , and we can also cause it ourselves. We can’t close our ears – and annual calls to noise services and police are likely to far outnumber emergency calls made seeking relief from the impacts of air pollution.

On neighbour noise, a recent Freedom of Information request issued to all local councils by Churchill Insurance found that between January and September last year the most common cause of neighbour complaints was noise. Over 78% of councils who responded reported a total of over 200,000 complaints (some of these were county councils who don’t even have responsibility for noise).

In public policy noise (along with air pollution) is recognised as a factor impacting our health – The Public Health Outcomes Framework published in 2012 contains outcomes and indicators to aid understanding of how well public health is being improved and protected and is a welcome step towards improving the quality of our local environment. The neighbour noise indicator is based on CIEH figures and gives an indication of the extent of reported noise disturbance in an area.

While the health effects of neighbour noise are notoriously difficult to quantify, common sense and in many cases personal experience, tell us that being repeatedly woken by loud music or TV,  bothered by barking dogs or late night DIY at the very least wakes us up and annoys us. Lack of sleep and repeated disturbance can affect our happiness, health, and through tiredness, productivity.

One current government policy emphasis is to track our happiness and well being – so noise should be high up the agenda of issues to take seriously. A report last year from housing specialists HACT  found that noise levels were more important to people for happiness at home than light or space. Research undertaken by Ipsos MORI for EPUK to support previous Noise Action Weeks found half a million people a year move home to escape noise, and one in seven are bothered by noise at home.

So, what can be done to reduce the noise that neighbours often unwittingly inflict on us?  Regulation is available to manage noise nuisance in extreme and persistent cases, but often noise is an insidious irritation rather than qualifiying as a legal nuisance. Better relationships with neighbours and communication and consideration within households are one way to greater tolerance and increased understanding by noise makers of when and why their noise will cause annoyance.  Education is cited as a way forward by studies on noise solutions – and has been for many years. EPUK’s noise awareness initiative – now Noise Action Week –  was established in 1997 to raise awareness of noise issues  for both noise makers and noise sufferers. It aims to encourage better relationships between neighbours, and raise the profile of the services and technical solutions available to help with more extreme and persistent noise problems – and continues to do so.

For policy and management purposes, noise is divided into neighbour noise (the responsibility of local authorities), and environmental noise (transport and industrial noise) –  the responsibility of central government and the Environment Agency.

While the noise we hear in and around our homes has a direct link to our mental health and well being, it is environmental noise that has a measurable impact on our physical health. Our response to noise is wired in to the bodies’ natural ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Even if a night time noise doesn’t wake us, our nervous system, hormone levels and blood pressure can be affected as we are alerted to potential danger.

Much of the data on the impact of exposure to persistent noise in our environment comes from research undertaken at European level. In 2008 the Greater London Authority commissioned research to inform the then mayor’s noise strategy. This found that in Greater London alone 108 heart attack deaths could be attributed to exposure to environmental noise. Across Europe, it is estimated that over half the population are exposed to unhealthy levels of traffic noise and 50,000 heart attack deaths are caused. There is increasing evidence too that noise impacts on ecosystems – disrupting wildlife, causing birds to alter their song and being potentially deadly for marine mammals.

There is increasing awareness in some sectors of the importance of sound environments – examples include Westminster City Council who have a noise strategy , and Wales, where quiet open spaces are being protected through planning. However, even though the Noise Policy Statement England means that noise is now included in many English policies, it is still very often neglected when it comes to planning and building the places where we live, work and play.

It takes the occasional visible smog to promote outcry over what is actually persistent air pollution. Often dubbed the Cinderella pollutant – what sort of noise event will it take to bring the importance of noise to the forefront of thinking? Surveys and statistics regularly flag up the encroachment of high levels of noise into our homes, parks, countryside and oceans to the minority who are listening – Noise Action Week is working to get noise noticed.

Mary Stevens

Co-ordinator of Noise Action Week

4 Comments + Add Comment

  • @ Mr C Elk, you mention the awaited Planning Practice Guidance for Noise. Note that it was published in March:
    However, you may be disappointed with how little new guidance it contains.

    • “However, you may be disappointed with how little new guidance it contains”

      I take your point Dan but to be disappointed one has to have some sort of expectation. So I’m not disappointed just resigned / sad. 🙁

  • The treatment of noise within the land use planning system is problematic to say the least. Planning is a balance that weighs up a variety of factors for example housing need, job creation, visual amenity etc. The most recent reforms in the land use planning system led to the revocation of the noise guidance, Planning Policy Guidance 24. Whilst this was somewhat out of date and led to some troubling decisions it was the standard document for both developers and local authorities alike. It gave guidance for reasonable assessment of the noise impact and advised at what level noise was unacceptable. It was replaced by, well, nothing although we await with baited breath the publication of revised planning practice guidance. This was all in the interests of streamlining and encouraging economic growth in a time of crisis. The result, frustrated noise officers, confused planners, bamboozled Councillors and rich developers leading to a mass of housing development next to busy roads that in the days of PPG24 would simply not have been allowed!

    And who ends up living in these hermetically sealed bijou residencies, particularly in London? Not your Chinese multi millionaires or your basic Russian oligarch I can tell you. The worst noise affected premises are given over to “affordable” housing. Brings a whole new meaning to the words “human shield”. What is desperately needed is recognition within the planning system that pollution, particularly noise pollution affects people’s health and as such, should be given greater priority trumping the likes of visual amenity when planning decisions are being made.

  • >what sort of noise event will it take to bring the importance of noise to the forefront of thinking

    People do seem resigned to noise – mind you wind turbine noise seems to have prompted a change of heart from the Coalition – and HS2, fracking and the like. There are some who say that the recent fuss about air pollution only happened because peoples’ cars got soiled with dust!

    Good luck with Noise Action Week – it provides a something for EHOs to rally behind as noise issues slip down the agenda

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