60 million people in European cities are exposed to noise levels that are harmful to health

Noise pollution is more than a nuisance. It is a major cause of illness and death. Long-term exposure to noise results in the release of stress hormones that increase heart rate, blood pressure and vasoconstriction, which in turn can lead to chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety. According to the WHO, noise pollution contributes to some 16,000 deaths a year in Europe alone.

Road traffic is the main source of noise in a city, although airplanes, construction noise, chatty tourists and partying neighbours also contribute.

The WHO estimates that noise contributes to around 16,000 deaths a year in Europe

Millions of people exposed—and disturbed—by road traffic noise

In this study, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen and his team assessed the levels of noise generated by road traffic in 749 European cities and examined its impact on health. The research team used the Urban Audit 2018 dataset and noise maps to estimate exposure. The results show that nearly half of the 123 million adults included in the study were exposed to noise levels above the WHO recommended threshold. The proportion of the population exposed to harmful noise levels ranged from 30% in Berlin to almost 87% in Vienna.

The study also found that more than 11 million adults were ‘highly annoyed’ by road traffic noise, defined as repeated disturbance in everyday activities such as communicating, reading, working and sleeping.

Thousands of preventable deaths

Building on previous research on the link between noise and mortality by heart disease, the researchers estimated that adherence to WHO guidelines could prevent more than 3,600 deaths each year from ischaemic heart disease alone.

“We are convinced that the true health impact of traffic noise is much greater, as we suspect that adverse effects occur even at levels below the WHO threshold” says Sasha Khomenko, lead author of the study.

The authors warn that the quality of the noise maps varies greatly between cities and cannot be directly compared. But, Nieuwenhuijsen points out, “the results provide, for the first time, a comprehensive picture of noise in European cities.”

The study is part of the European Urban Burden of Disease Project, which has already produced rankings of mortality associated with air pollution and green space in around 1,000 European cities.

Khomenko S, Cirach M, Barrera-Gómez J et al. Impact of road traffic noise on annoyance and preventable mortality in European cities: a health impact assessment. Environ Int. 162 (2022) doi:10.1016/j.envint.2022.107160

Photo: Francesco Zivolli