Environmental noise

Briefing Published 30 Nov 2017 Last modified 19 Dec 2017
12 min read
Environmental noise


EU indicator past trend


Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Exposure to environmental noise

Yellow triangle: stable or unclear trend

Significantly decrease noise pollution – 7th EAP  

 Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

Efforts to reduce environmental noise tend to be offset by an increase in the number of people being exposed to high noise levels, in particular due to increasing road and aviation traffic and an increase in the number of city inhabitants

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes an objective that noise pollution in the EU should be decreased significantly by 2020, moving closer to World Health Organization (WHO) recommended levels. Exposure to outdoor noise is monitored under the Environmental Noise Directive (END) against two thresholds, an indicator for the day, evening and night periods (Lden) that measures exposure to noise levels associated with ‘annoyance’ and an indicator for night periods (Lnight) that is designed to assess sleep disturbance. These thresholds do not correspond directly to the WHO recommended values and currently there is no mechanism in place for tracking progress against the latter values. Data reported under the Directive suggest that noise remains a major environmental health problem in Europe. For example, in 2012 — the year for which the most recent data has been reported — an estimated 100 million people in the EU were exposed to daily road traffic noise levels exceeding the threshold specified in the END. During the more sensitive night period, over 69 million people were estimated to be exposed in the EU to night road traffic noise levels exceeding the Directive’s night-time noise threshold. As a result of such exposures, approximately 16,600 cases of premature death from noise exposure occur each year in Europe, predominately from road traffic. Where comparable, reported data suggest that noise exposure levels remained relatively stable between 2007 and 2012. Efforts to reduce the noise from individual sources are being offset by continuing migration to urban areas and increases in vehicle traffic. This is likely to continue in the future, with transport demand set to increase, including road transport, and with predicted increases in aircraft noise. It is therefore unlikely that noise pollution will decrease significantly by 2020.

Setting the scene

Noise exposure from transport sources and industry can lead to annoyance, stress reactions, sleep disturbance, and increases in the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Environmental noise causes approximately 16 600 cases of premature death in Europe[1] each year, with almost 32 million adults estimated to suffer annoyance and over 13 million adults estimated to suffer sleep disturbance (ETC-ACM, 2016) [2]. The WHO (2011) identified noise as the second most significant environmental cause of ill health, the first being air pollution (AIRS_PO3.1, 2017). The 7th EAP (EU, 2013) includes an objective to significantly decrease noise pollution by 2020, moving closer to WHO recommended levels.

Policy targets and progress

The Environmental Noise Directive (END) is the main EU instrument through which land-based noise emissions are monitored and actions developed. It defines environmental noise as ‘unwanted or harmful outdoor sound created by human activities, including noise emitted by means of transport, road traffic, rail traffic, air traffic, and from sites of industrial activity’ (EU, 2002). It places an obligation on EU Member States to assess noise levels by producing strategic noise maps for all major roads, railways, airports and urban areas[3]. Based on these noise-mapping results, Member States must prepare action plans containing measures that address noise issues and their effects for those areas where the specific END indicator thresholds (55 dB averaged across the day, evening and night periods (Lden) and 50 dB averaged across the night period (Lnight)) have been surpassed. The Directive neither sets limit values for noise exposure, nor prescribes measures for inclusion in the action plans. Finally, Member States are required to select and preserve areas of good acoustic environmental quality, referred to as ‘quiet areas’, in order to protect the European soundscape.

High environmental (i.e. outdoor) noise levels are defined in the 7th EAP as noise levels for Lden above 55 dB and for Lnight above 50 dB.

During the night, high outdoor noise levels can cause sleep disturbance, such as body movements and wakening, starting at Lnight levels below 40 dB, and with effects on the cardiovascular system that become apparent above 55 dB. All these impacts can contribute to premature mortality (WHO, 2009). The WHO established a night-time outdoor noise guideline for Lnight of 40 dB with the aim of protecting the public, including vulnerable groups such as children, the chronically ill and the elderly. An outdoor noise Lnight value of 55 dB was recommended as an interim target for countries where the night-time noise guideline cannot be achieved in the short term and where policymakers adopt a stepwise approach. The WHO night-time noise guideline is stricter than the Lnight threshold of 50 dB set under the END, providing a higher level of protection for human health. However, assessments cannot be made by comparing noise levels in the EU with WHO recommended levels, as Member States are not obliged to report this information.

Figure 1 provides an overview of the number of people exposed to levels of environmental noise in the EU within and outside urban areas that are above the daily (24 hour period) noise indicator threshold set by the END. The major source of noise pollution (measured in terms of number of affected people), both inside and outside urban areas, is road traffic. Noise from trains and aircraft has a much lower impact in terms of overall population exposure to noise, but it remains a major source of localised noise pollution (EEA, 2015).

It is estimated that 100 million people in the EU are exposed to Lden levels from road traffic noise that are above 55 dB. Night-time road traffic is another major source of noise exposure, with approximately 69 million EU citizens exposed to harmful Lnight levels above 50 dB (ETC_ACM, 2016 and EEA 2017a, EEA 2017b). In addition, many people are also exposed to rail, aircraft and industrial noise, particularly in towns and cities. While high levels of aircraft noise do not affect a wide geographical area, its harmful effects have been shown to include a reduced ability of younger generations to concentrate in schools that are affected by aircraft flight paths (EEA, 2014).

Figure 1. Estimated number of people in the EU exposed to high daily average noise levels, 2012

Note: 1. Urban areas are the urban agglomerations, defined as such in the Environmental Noise Directive, that are the part of the territory, delimited by the Member State, having a population in excess of 100 000 persons and a population density such that the Member State considers it to be an urbanised area.
2. The numbers of people exposed can only be summed for the same source inside and outside urban areas and not across sources, since the latter could lead to double counting.
3. 55 dB Lden is the EU threshold for excess exposure defined in the Environmental Noise Directive. It indicates an annual average level during the day, evening and night; dB=decibel.

Examples of measures to reduce noise exposure currently being undertaken at the national level include installing road and rail noise barriers and optimising aircraft movements around airports. However, it is widely acknowledged that the most effective actions to reduce exposure tend to be those that reduce noise at source, for example reducing the number of vehicles on the road, introducing quieter tyres for road vehicles or laying quieter road surfaces.

A major problem for the effectiveness of such measures is that, given the different factors that determine traffic noise, a single measure alone is often not sufficient to significantly reduce exposure.

In terms of assessing past trends in noise exposure, data were reported to the EEA in 2007 and in 2012 under two rounds of noise mapping assessments. There are comparability issues between the two reporting rounds because of a lack of common assessment methods and incomplete reporting of exposure assessments, with as little as 62 % of the expected amount of data, depending on source, being delivered in the second reporting round.

However, the analysis of a sub-set of the reported data that were comparable revealed that exposure to noise has remained broadly constant between 2007 and 2012.

Efforts to reduce the noise from individual sources were offset by the higher numbers of people being exposed to high noise levels, mainly due to increasing passenger road and aviation traffic (EEA, 2017c) and increasing numbers of city inhabitants (Eurostat, 2016). The construction of new roads may have also exposed new areas and populations to road traffic noise.

Finally, it is unlikely that noise pollution will decrease significantly by 2020, given that transport demand is expected to increase (EC, 2016), air traffic noise has been predicted to increase (EASA et al, 2016) and the number of city inhabitants is also set to increase (Eurostat, 2016).

Country level information

Road traffic is the most widespread noise source in Europe and is the source that causes the largest number of people to be exposed to noise levels above the Environmental Noise Directive threshold levels for Lden and Lnight. This is true at the European scale, at country scale and both inside and outside urban areas. Nevertheless, a wide variation can be identified between countries in the number of people exposed to road traffic noise in urban areas. This is significantly influenced by factors such as the number of urban areas per country, the total number of inhabitants per urban area, and differences between the methods countries have used to estimate noise exposure. The correlation between the total number of inhabitants in an urban area and the number of people exposed to road traffic noise is very strong.

The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Poland and Switzerland reported that more than 50 % of inhabitants in urban areas (an urban agglomeration with more than 100 000 inhabitants) were exposed to road noise Lden levels above 55 dB, while Belgium and Bulgaria reported figures of more than 75 % for the equivalent exposure (Figure 2). At the other end of the scale, the number of inhabitants exposed to road noise Lden levels above 55 dB in Germany, Hungary, Malta and Portugal remained below 25 %. As mentioned above, however, country-specific data are not necessarily comparable.

Figure 2. Percentage of population exposed to high road noise daily average levels within urban areas, by country, 2012

55 dB Lden is the EU threshold for excess exposure defined in the Environmental Noise Directive. It indicates an annual average level during the day, evening and night; dB=decibel.

Outlook beyond 2020

Regarding the long-term outlook for exposure to environmental noise in Europe, there are a number of challenges to reducing population exposure to noise pollution. Economic growth and expanding transport networks can lead to increased transport levels that could, in turn, increase noise pollution. At the same time, trends towards increasing urbanisation (Eurostat, 2016) could lead to higher numbers of people being exposed. Transport demand, including for passenger cars is expected to increase by 2050 (EC, 2016 and EEA, 2015), with noise from road traffic representing the dominant source of environmental noise and noise from air traffic also set to increase (EASA et al, 2016). While the use of electric cars currently contributes to lower noise levels at low speeds in urban areas, the new EU regulation on the sound levels of motor vehicles (EU, 2014) will require the installation of artificial sound generators in all electric and hybrid vehicles by 2021 to improve safety for pedestrians. Whether or not exposure to noise increases or decreases beyond 2020 depends on the relative rates of these as well as of other developments.

About the indicator

The Environmental Noise Directive (END) requires two main indicators to be applied in the assessment and management of environmental noise. The first indicator (Lden) is the noise level for the day, evening and night periods and is designed to measure ‘annoyance’. The END defines an Lden threshold of 55 dB. The second indicator (Lnight) is the noise level for night-time periods and is designed to assess sleep disturbance. The END defines an Lnight threshold of 50 dB. Member States must report the numbers of people who are exposed to noise levels above both thresholds for each noise source (e.g. roads, railways, airports, industry). The EEA uses the reported data to publish an indicator for environmental noise in Europe that focuses on environmental noise exposure to Lden since this covers the full 24 hour period (EEA, 2017b). A complete assessment of exposure to environmental noise and a prognosis regarding the future outlook are hindered by the fact that exposure estimates reported by countries are not complete, with as little as 62 % of the expected amount of data, depending on source, being delivered in the second reporting round (EEA, 2014). The gaps in the reported data have been filled with expert estimates. The lack of comparable and common assessment methods often causes significant inconsistencies between exposure estimates from different countries, for regions and cities within a single country and across the two main reporting rounds (2007 and 2012).

Footnotes and references

[1] The estimates cover the 28 EU Member States as well as the five member countries of the European Environment Agency (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey).

[2] The 2012 noise data were updated in this environmental noise (2017) briefing compared to the 2012 noise data presented in the environmental noise briefing that was published in 2016. The update reflects the more recent country submissions and redeliveries under the Environmental Noise Directive. The number of premature deaths and of adults estimated to suffer annoyance and sleep disturbance was also updated in line with this as well as by applying an improved methodology (ETC-ACM, 2016).

[3] The END defines major roads as those having more than three million vehicle passages a year, major railways as those having more than 30 000 train passages per year, and major airports as those having more than 50 000 flight movements (take offs or landings) per year. 


EASA, EEA and Eurocontrol, 2016, European Aviation Environmental Report 2016, European Aviation Safety Agency, Cologne.

EC, 2016, EU reference scenario 2016 — Energy, transport and GHG emissions — Trends to 2050, European Commission, Brussels.

EEA, 2014, Noise in Europe 2014, EEA Report No 10/2014, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2015, Evaluating 15 years of transport and environmental policy integration, EEA Report No 7/2015, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017a, Managing exposure to noise in Europe, (https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/human/noise/sub-sections/noise-in-europe-updated-population-exposure) accessed 17 October 2017.

EEA, 2017b, ‘Population exposure to environmental noise (CSI 051/TERM 005) (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/exposure-to-and-annoyance-by-2/assessment) accessed 23 June 2017.

EEA, 2017c, ‘Passenger transport demand’ (CSI035/TERM 012), (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/passenger-transport-demand-version-2/assessment-9), accessed 21 October 2017.

ETC-ACM, 2016, Blanes N, Fons J, Houthuijs D, Swart W, de la Maza MS, Ramos MJ, et al., Noise in Europe 2017: updated assessment., European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation (ETC/ACM), Bilthoven, The Netherlands, (https://acm.eionet.europa.eu/reports/docs/ETCACM_TP_2016_13_NoiseInEurope2017.pdf) accessed 23 June 2017.

EU, 2002, Directive 2002/49/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 June 2002 relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise (OJ L 189, 18.7.2002, p. 12–25).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

Eurostat, 2016, Urban Europe — Statistics on cities, towns and suburbs — Eurostat (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/3217494/7596823/KS-01-16-691-EN-N.pdf/0abf140c-ccc7-4a7f-b236-682effcde10f) accessed 23 June 2017.

WHO, 2009, Night noise guidelines for Europe, World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.

WHO, 2011, Burden of disease from environmental noise — Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe, World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.


AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO3.1, 2016, Outdoor air quality in urban areas, European Environment Agency

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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