Noise levels “top health hazard”

Traffic noise and your own headphone habits could be putting your health at risk.


That’s according to new guidelines from the World Health Organisation, which are intended to help governments in Europe protect their citizens from environmental harm.

The guidelines “provide strong evidence that noise is one of the top environmental hazards to both physical and mental health and well-being in the European Region,” the WHO said in a press release last week.

“Noise pollution in our towns and cities is increasing, blighting the lives of many European citizens,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “More than a nuisance, excessive noise is a health risk – contributing to cardiovascular diseases, for example. We need to act on the many sources of noise pollution – from motorised vehicles to loud nightclubs and concerts – to protect our health.”

At least 100 million people in the EU are negatively affected by road traffic noise, according to Jakab. The new guidelines recommend keeping road traffic noise below 53 decibels during the day, and below 45db at night. Similar limits should be placed on railway noise, the WHO said.

Many countries have no such limits at present. The UK, for example, has no legal limit on road or railway noise. The EU does have legal limits on noise for individual road vehicles, but these are in the region of 70-80db.

The WHO’s recommended maximum average volume of leisure-related noise is 70db. According to the WHO, studies have found that the real-world volume of people’s listening devices, such as headphones, ranges between 72db and 91db. Because the decibel scale increases exponentially rather than linearly, being exposed to 90db of noise for a mere 2 hours per week pushes a person’s yearly average noise levels above 70db.

Studies have found that noise exposures associated with developing hearing loss in childhood include more than 4 hours per week of headphone usage and more than four visits per month to a loud music venue.

“These WHO guidelines – the first of their kind globally – provide recommendations for protecting human health from exposure to environmental noise originating from various sources,” Jakab said. “They provide robust public health advice, which is essential to drive policy action that will protect communities from the adverse effects of noise.”

Words: Craig Nicholson

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