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Environmental noise affects a large number of Europeans. The public perceives it as one of the major environmental problems. It can affect people in both physiological and psychological ways, interfering with basic activities such as sleep, rest, study and communication. Even though these impacts on human health have long been known, recent research shows that they arise at lower noise levels than was previously thought.

Environmental noise — an unwanted or harmful outdoor sound — is spreading, both in its duration and geographical coverage. Noise is associated with many human activities, but it is road, rail and air traffic noise that has the highest impact. This is particularly a problem for the urban environment; about 75 % of Europe’s population lives in cities, and traffic volumes are still on the rise. Country reviews show that the number of complaints related to environmental noise is increasing in many European countries.

Since environmental noise is persistent and inescapable, a significant proportion of the population is exposed to it. The EU Green Paper Future Noise Policy states that around 20 % of the EU’s population suffer from noise levels that health experts consider to be unacceptable, i.e. which can lead to annoyance, sleep disturbance and adverse health effects. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 40 % of the population in the EU is exposed to road traffic noise at levels exceeding 55 dB(A), and that more than 30 % is exposed to levels exceeding 55 dB(A) during the night.

The quantification of the related disease burden of environmental noise is an emerging challenge for policy makers. Noise exposure not only leads to sleep disturbance, annoyance and hearing impairment, but also to other health problems such as cardiovascular disorders. The burden of disease from environmental noise has not yet been quantified. The World Health Organisation is currently developing a study, addressing several health effects of noise.

In addition, the impacts of noise are enhanced when they interact with other environmental stressors, such as air pollution and chemicals. This may be particularly the case in urban areas, where most of these stressors coexist.

Noise also impacts on wildlife. The extent of the long-term repercussions of this, for example changing migration routes and moving animals away from their preferred feeding and breeding grounds, need to be further investigated.

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