Environmental noise remains a major problem in Europe, with at least 20% of the EU population living in areas where noise levels are considered harmful to health. Most of the people affected live in urban areas. Road traffic is by far the most dominant source of environmental noise. The number of people exposed to high levels of environmental noise has broadly remained stable since 2012. A key commitment of the European Commission’s zero-pollution ambition is to reduce the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30% by 2030, compared with 2017.

Figure 1. Estimated number of people exposed to unhealthy noise levels, based on Environmental Noise Directive thresholds, in the EU in 2007, 2012 and 2017
Estimated number of people exposed to unhealthy noise levels, based on Environmental Noise Directive thresholds, in the EU in 2007, 2012 and 2017

Chronic exposure to environmental noise significantly affects physical and mental health. This indicator provides an overview of the estimated number of people in Europe exposed to environmental noise above the threshold levels set by the Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC) in both urban and non-urban areas. According to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, exposure to these noise levels can have adverse effects on health.

The major source of noise pollution in both urban and non-urban areas is road traffic. According to 2017 noise-mapping data, more than 95 million people in the EU are affected by road noise levels of 55 dB or more during the day-evening-night period (Lden), and more than 65 million are affected by levels of 50 dB or more during the night (Lnight). Noise from railways and aircraft has a much lower impact in terms of the overall population, but both are significant sources of local noise pollution.

Trends are difficult to establish because of methodology-related comparability issues between the reporting years (2007, 2012 and 2017) and must be interpreted with caution. However, comparisons of 2012 and 2017 data suggest that the number of people exposed to harmful noise levels has remained stable for most sources. Small increases are observed for road, railway and aircraft noise inside urban areas, both during the day-evening-night and night-time periods. A more significant increase is observed for aircraft noise outside urban areas at night. However, as noise from aircraft affects far fewer people than road or rail traffic noise, the number of additional people affected is relatively low.

Efforts to reduce exposure to noise from individual sources may be offset by continuing migration to urban areas, which results in increases in population, activity and traffic levels. An increased demand for passenger and goods transport also hampers efforts to reduce environmental noise.

As no significant decrease in the number of people exposed to harmful noise levels has been observed over time, the Seventh Environment Action Programme objective to significantly reduce noise pollution in the EU and move closer to WHO-recommended levels by 2020 has not been achieved. A key commitment of the European Commission’s zero-pollution ambition is to reduce the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30% by 2030, compared with 2017.

Figure 2. Estimated percentage of inhabitants within urban areas exposed to unhealthy road traffic noise levels, based on Environmental Noise Directive thresholds, in 2017 in the EEA member countries and the United Kingdom
Estimated percentage of inhabitants within urban areas exposed to unhealthy road traffic noise levels, based on Environmental Noise Directive thresholds, in 2017 in the EEA member countries and the United Kingdom

About 70 million people in the 32 EEA member countries (not including Greece or Turkey) plus the United Kingdom are estimated to be exposed to harmful levels of road traffic noise in urban areas.

Although it is difficult to make comparisons between countries’ urban areas, because of the use of different noise-mapping methodologies (e.g. some countries map all streets in cities, while some map only the busiest streets), it is clear that in most urban areas in Europe a large number of people are exposed to unhealthy levels of road traffic noise. At least 20% of the urban population of all countries is exposed to levels above 55 dB Lden, which is above the WHO-recommended level, while, in more than half of the countries, at least 50% of the urban population is exposed to unhealthy levels of road traffic noise. Therefore, road traffic noise in urban areas is not a problem in only a few countries, but a widespread problem across Europe.