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Reduce traffic noise to prevent heart disease

Noise pollution from road, rail and aircraft traffic needs to be reduced to help prevent heart disease, sleep disturbance and public annoyance, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report led by Queen Mary University of London academics.

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The new WHO Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region provide strong evidence that noise is one of the top environmental hazards to both physical and mental health and well-being in Europe.

The report recommends reducing road traffic noise levels to below 53 decibels (dB). Putting this into context, people are regularly exposed to over 55 dB of road traffic noise, with motorway traffic generating 70 dB of noise.

Professor Stephen Stansfeld from Queen Mary’s Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, who was Chair of the Guidelines Development Group at the WHO, said: “These guidelines have been developed based on the growing body of evidence in the field of environmental noise research. They aim to support public health policy that will protect communities from the adverse effects of noise, as well as stimulate further research into the health effects of different types of noise.”

Compared to previous WHO guidelines, this latest version contains stronger evidence of the cardiovascular effects of environmental noise. It also includes new noise sources like wind turbine noise and leisure noise, such as nightclubs, pubs, live sporting events, concerts and listening to loud music through personal listening devices.

Five per cent increased risk of heart disease

After reviewing the available scientific evidence, the group strongly recommended:

  • Reducing road traffic noise levels to below 53 dB on average, and below 45 dB at night - Above this level, there was a 10 per cent risk of having a highly annoyed population, and there was a five per cent increased risk of certain types of heart disease at higher levels of 59.3 dB.
  • Reducing railway traffic noise levels to below 54 dB on average, and below 44 dB at night - There was a 10 per cent risk of having a highly annoyed population at a noise exposure level of 53.7 dB, and three per cent of study participants were highly sleep-disturbed at a 43.7 dB noise level.
  • Reducing aircraft noise levels to below 45 dB on average, and below 40 dB at night – 11 per cent of participants were highly sleep-disturbed at a noise level of 40 dB.

Based on weaker evidence, the group also made conditional recommendations that they said required further debate. These were:

  • Reducing noise from wind turbines to below 45 dB on average.
  • Reducing the yearly average from all leisure noise sources combined to 70 dB to limit the risk of hearing impairment.

Driving policy to protect communities from health effects of noise

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “Noise pollution in our towns and cities is increasing, blighting the lives of many European citizens. More than a nuisance, excessive noise is a health risk – contributing to cardiovascular diseases, for example. We need to act on the many sources of noise pollution – from motorised vehicles to loud nightclubs and concerts – to protect our health.

“The new WHO guidelines define exposure levels to noise that should not be exceeded to minimise adverse health effects and we urge European policy-makers to make good use of this guidance for the benefit of all Europeans.”

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