Road transport is the most significant contributor to environmental noise pollution in the EU. EU policies are put in place to reduce exposure to and the harmful effects of noise pollution.

Europe's zero pollution ambition covers noise pollution too

The levels of noise generated by transport sources are generally too low to cause biological damage to the ear; however, it is well established that long-term exposure to noise above certain levels can lead to non-auditory health effects such as annoyance, sleep disturbance, negative effects on the cardiovascular and metabolic systems, and cognitive impairment in children.

Reducing the negative impacts of exposure to environmental noise is a key objective under the EU's zero pollution action plan, which aims to reduce the number of people chronically disturbed by noise from transport by 30% by 2030 (compared with 2017).

Shhhh! This is a quiet area

Within the European Union, the Environmental Noise Directive (END; 2002/49/EC) defines quiet areas outside cities as "those areas delimited by national authorities that are undisturbed by noise from traffic, industry or recreational activities".

Our report ‘Quiet areas in Europe: the environment unaffected by noise pollution,’ provides a first mapping assessment of potential quiet areas in Europe’s rural regions. Approximately 18% of Europe’s area can be considered quiet, but about a third is potentially affected by noise pollution.

Several cities and regions have put in place so-called quiet areas in parks and other green spaces where people can go to escape the city noise. These areas can bring significant environmental and health benefits. Still, EEA research found that these sites were often not available or difficult to access, especially in noisier city centres.

Environmental noise: Where does it come from?

Does noise stress animals too?

Noise negatively impacts wildlife, both on land and in the sea. Noise pollution can cause various physical and behavioural issues in animals and increase their stress.

For example, road traffic noise can make it difficult for frogs and songbirds to communicate with each other, especially during mating season. This can reduce their ability to reproduce or force them to flee their habitats.

Underwater noise from shipping, energy production, construction and other activities is also a concern. Research shows that hearing damage in whales can harm their ability to communicate with each other and find food.

Road traffic remains the top source of noise pollution in Europe, the new EEA report ‘Noise in Europe – 2020’ says, with noise levels projected to rise in both urban and rural areas over the next decade due to urban growth and increased demand for mobility. Rail, aircraft and industry round up the other top sources of environmental noise pollution.

Environmental noise guidelines for Europe

With the publication in 2018 of the WHO Environmental noise guidelines for the European Region, there is greater insight into the negative effects of noise on health and a growing awareness of the need to reduce noise pollution.

The guidelines presented recommendations on reducing noise levels for road, railway, aircraft, wind turbine and leisure noise sources and showed that low levels of noise, currently not captured in the EU Environmental Noise Directive, are likely to cause health problems.

The introduction of the guidelines triggered actions at local, national and supra-national level. A brief has been prepared jointly by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the European Environment Agency to evaluate the uptake and impact of the guidelines by drawing on the experiences from countries.

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