Environmental noise affects a large number of Europeans. The public perceives it as one of the major environmental problems. It can affect people in both physiological and psychological ways, interfering with basic activities such as sleep, rest, study and communication. Even though these impacts on human health have long been known, recent research shows that they arise at lower noise levels than was previously thought.

Environmental noise — an unwanted or harmful outdoor sound — is spreading, both in its duration and geographical coverage. Noise is associated with many human activities, but it is road, rail and air traffic noise that has the highest impact. This is particularly a problem for the urban environment; about 75 % of Europe’s population lives in cities, and traffic volumes are still on the rise. Country reviews show that the number of complaints related to environmental noise is increasing in many European countries. Since environmental noise is persistent and inescapable, a significant proportion of the population is exposed to it. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 40 % of the population in the EU is exposed to road traffic noise at levels exceeding 55dB(A), and that more than 30 % is exposed to levels exceeding 55 dB(A) during the night.

The quantification of the related disease burden of environmental noise is an emerging challenge for policy makers. Noise exposure not only leads to sleep disturbance, annoyance and hearing impairment, but also to other health problems such as cardiovascular disorders. 

In addition, the impacts of noise are enhanced when they interact with other environmental stressors, such as air pollution and chemicals. This may be particularly the case in urban areas, where most of these stressors coexist.

Noise also impacts on wildlife. The extent of the long-term repercussions of this, for example changing migration routes and moving animals away from their preferred feeding and breeding grounds, need to be further investigated.

EU policies 

Noise emissions from vehicles and machinery have been regulated in EU for decades. It was in the 1990s however, when regulation of human exposure to noise first started to develop. 

In 2002, the Environmental Noise Directive was adopted. It provided a common basis for tackling noise across the EU. The Member States should identify hotspots where noise will be mapped and for which action plans should be made. Countries should also inform the public and the Commission about these activities. The hotspots where noise-mapping and action-planning are to be carried out are around major agglomerations and alongside major roads, railways and airports.

Noise exposure is also integrated into other EU policies such as in the thematic strategy on urban environment, the Common Transport Policy and the Sustainable Development Strategy.

EEA activities

The EEA's work is mainly related to the Environmental Noise Directive. It supports EEA member countries and the European Commission in noise data-management as well as in assessments of noise exposure.

Under the Environmental Noise Directive several dataflows have to be reported. The EEA led the development of an electronic reporting mechanism in early 2007, harmonised to the EEA reporting system. More information on the Directive is available on the Commission's CIRCA site.

In assisting with the implementation of the Directive EEA works closely with the European Topic Centre on Urban, Land and Soil Ecosystems (ETC-ULS)  and with EEA's country network (Eionet).

Noise exposure data as reported in accordance with the Environmental Noise Directive  has been collated by EEA and is available at the Noise Observation and Information Service for Europe. This is the EEA's interactive data base and map viewer dedicated to illustrating exposure to noise across Europe.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100