Noise pollution is still widespread across Europe, but there are ways to reduce the volume

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Article Published 15 Oct 2020 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
5 min read
Photo: © Máté Ladjánszki, REDISCOVER Nature/EEA
Many of us are increasingly confronted by noise in our daily lives. Loud cars on the street, a low-flying plane overhead or a nearby train often bring with them annoyance and frustration. However, their impact on our health and environment could be a lot worse than you think.

We often think about pollution in terms of where it can be detected: pollution of air, water or soil. However, there are also some very specific types of pollution that harm people and wildlife.

At least one in five Europeans is currently exposed to road traffic noise levels considered harmful to their health. This number is even higher in urban areas and the problem is widespread across most cities in Europe. Road traffic is by far the top source of noise pollution in Europe, according to a recent EEA noise report that looked at noise from roads, railways, airports and industry. These sources are in line with the Environmental Noise Directive, which does not cover noise from, for example, domestic activities or neighbours, or noise in workplaces.

Noise can be bad for your health

An estimated 113 million Europeans are affected by long-term exposure to day‑evening-night traffic noise levels of at least 55 decibels. In addition, 22 million Europeans are exposed to high levels of noise from railways, 4 million to high levels of aircraft noise and fewer than 1 million to high levels of noise caused by industries.

What many people may not know is that long-term exposure to noise, even at the levels we are used to in urban areas, has significant health impacts. In most European countries, more than 50 % of people living in urban areas are exposed to road noise levels of 55 decibels or higher during the measured day-evening-night period. Long‑term exposure to this level, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is likely to have negative impacts on health.

The EEA estimates that long-term exposure to environmental noise causes 12 000 premature deaths and contributes to 48 000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease every year across Europe. It is also estimated that 22 million people suffer chronic high annoyance and 6.5 million people suffer chronic high sleep disturbance.

According to WHO evidence, these health impacts start to occur even below the 55 decibel noise level for the day-evening‑night period and the 50 decibel noise level for the night period, which are the reporting thresholds set out by the EU’s Environmental Noise Directive. Therefore, these numbers are likely to be underestimated. Furthermore, the information provided by countries under EU law do not cover all urban areas, roads, railways and airports, nor do they cover all sources of noise.

What the EU is doing to reduce noise pollution

People’s exposure to noise is monitored under the Environmental Noise Directive against two reporting thresholds: an indicator for the day-evening-night period (Lden), which measures exposure to noise levels associated with ‘annoyance’, and an indicator for the night period (Lnight), which is designed to assess sleep disturbance. These reporting thresholds are higher than the World Health Organization-recommended values and currently there is no mechanism in place for tracking progress against the latter lower values.

Wildlife is affected too

Noise also has a negative impact on wildlife, both on land and in the water. Noise pollution can cause a range of physical and behavioural effects on animals and increase their stress.

For instance, 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 another concern. For example, research has found hearing damage in whales, which can harm their ability to communicate with each other and find food.

Shh! Quiet please!

European countries have taken a number of measures to reduce and manage noise levels. However, it has been difficult to evaluate their benefits in terms of positive health outcomes, according to the EEA’s noise report.

Examples of the most popular measures to reduce noise levels in cities include replacing older paved roads with smoother asphalt, better management of traffic flows and reducing speed limits to 30 kilometres per hour. Some cities have also implemented projects aimed at masking traffic noise by placing more pleasant-to-the-ear noises, such as running waterfalls, in city centres. There are also measures aimed at raising awareness and changing people’s behaviour in using less-noisy modes of transport, such as cycling, walking and electric vehicles.

A number of 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. These areas, the creation and designation and protection of which are encouraged by EU rules, can bring significant environmental and health benefits, according to a 2016 EEA report on quiet areas in Europe.

However, EEA research found issues related to the availability of and access to these sites, especially in noisier city centres, where quiet green spaces are hard to find and not reachable within a 10-minute walk from people’s homes.

COVID-19 and noise

Noise pollution from transport sources, such as road, rail or air traffic, is linked to economic activity. Therefore, a significant short-term reduction in transportation noise levels can be expected as a result of COVID-19-related lockdowns. However, environmental noise levels are reported over a prolonged period, as health effects appear when exposure is long term. As such, a short-term reduction in noise levels would not significantly reduce the annual noise level indicator used to measure the effects of noise.

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Turn down the volume

It is clear that we cannot live without sound or noise and reducing noise pollution to ‘zero’ is unrealistic. However, the EU is working to make sure that noise levels are reduced so they do less harm to our environment and health. This is a big task.

It is already clear that the EU’s 2020 objective on reducing noise pollution, as defined by the EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme of decreasing noise pollution and moving towards WHO-recommended levels for noise exposure, will not be met. Many EU Member States will need to do more to take the steps needed to address noise pollution, especially in implementing the EU’s Environmental Noise Directive.

Noise pollution

Noise pollution is a growing environmental concern. Noise disturbs sleep and makes it harder to learn in school. It can also cause or aggravate many health problems. The most important source of environmental noise in Europe is road traffic.

SourceEEA report - Noise in Europe 2020; EEA Infographic.


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