Noise is everywhere. From loud sirens to cars on the highway and planes overhead, noise is more widespread than ever in our lives. What many people may not know is that long-term exposure to traffic noise is a lot more than an annoyance — it harms both our physical and mental health. 

There are few things as annoying as noise. Airplanes, vehicle horns or garbage trucks can raise anyone’s stress levels. Particularly at night, most people would like to keep things quiet and sleep well.  

Yet especially if you live in a city, being exposed to noise may be part of your everyday life. Many European residents have to live with constant environmental noise that negatively impacts their health. 

How environmental noise impacts health 

Road traffic noise is particularly a major problem in Europe, affecting the health and well-being of one out of five people in Europe. Long-term noise from traffic is more than just a nuisance. It can cause serious health effects, such as ischaemic heart disease, obesity and diabetes, amongst others. 

While efforts have been made at the European level to address noise pollution, including noise level monitoring, progress has been slow overall.  

The EEA’s latest zero pollution monitoring assessment estimates that, in the EU, at least 18 million people are highly annoyed and 5 million people are highly sleep disturbed because of long-term exposure to noise from transport. In addition, it is estimated that long-term exposure to noise causes 41,000 new cases of heart disease and 11,000 premature deaths every year in Europe.  

However, these numbers are likely underestimated. Information provided by EU Member States does not cover all urban areas, roads, railways and airports, nor all sources of noise. 

So how do we turn down the volume?  

The EU is taking more action to tackle noise. One of the headline targets of the European Commission’s Zero Pollution Action Plan is to reduce the number of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30% by 2030 (compared to 2017).  

To achieve this, the number of people highly annoyed in the EU would need to go down by 5.3 million. This, however, is likely to be challenging given that the overall number of people exposed to harmful levels of noise has remained stable over the last decade. The recently-published implementation report of the Environmental Noise Directive also states that reaching the zero pollution ambition on noise will require more action at local, national and EU levels. 

At the same time, local and national authorities have already done many things to reduce and manage noise. Some examples include replacing older paved roads with smoother, low-noise asphalt, lowering speed limits, redesigning roadways and retrofitting trains with quiet brakes. 

To achieve the zero pollution target, curbing noise at its source is important. This includes reducing noise from vehicles and tyres, or rail grinding from railways; or improving aircraft landing and take-off procedures.  

And any single measure will not be enough: there is also a need for better urban and transport planning, and a lot less road traffic in cities. Raising awareness and encouraging people to use quieter modes of transport like cycling and walking can also help. 

Many cities and regions have also put in place so-called quiet areas, most of which are parks and other green spaces, where people can go to escape city noise. The EEA’s 2020 noise report says more needs to be done to create and protect quiet areas outside of the city and improve people’s access to quiet spaces in the city. 

Figure 1. Selected measures to reduce transport noise

In a nutshell: noise pollution 

  • Noise pollution in our environment is a growing problem. Transport modes like cars, planes and trains are the biggest culprits.
  • Overall, about 20% of Europe’s population is exposed to long-term noise that harms their health.  
  • The Zero Pollution Action Plan has set an ambitious goal to tackle noise pollution, but its target is unlikely to be met in time. More efforts are needed.  

What can I do? 

  • Switch from using the car to active modes of transport, such as walking or cycling. When driving, pay attention to driving style and consider switching to an electric vehicle.  
  • Seek out green and blue spaces or go out to the countryside to take a break from noise. 
  • Check out noise levels where you live via the EEA’s Noise Observation and Information Service for Europe (NOISE). 

This feature article is part of EEA Signals 2023 — Environment and health in Europe.

Our latest articles