The sound of silence: Why noise pollution needs more attention from policymakers

At least one in five people in the EU are exposed to long-term noise levels considered harmful to their health, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), and research shows noise pollution can damage hearing long-term as well as short-term. Now policymakers are beginning to address noise pollution at the source, aiming for large scale reductions in environmental noise. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), most causes of hearing loss in adults are preventable, and this includes exposure to loud noises. To promote actions towards the prevention of hearing loss and improved hearing care, the WHO held the first World Hearing Day back in 2007. This year’s World Hearing Day will take place on March 3, 2024, themed “Changing mindsets: Let’s make ear and hearing care a reality for all!”.  

This day reminds us that a major focus of ear health and hearing care must be on prevention. Environmental noise pollution, and in particular road traffic noise, is a growing concern across Europe, according to the EEA, who say it can cause not only hearing loss and general annoyance, but also sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular and metabolic issues.  

“Given noise’s negative impacts on a large portion of Europe’s population, environmental noise has become a significant concern for citizens and policymakers.” European Environment Agency (EEA) 

Chronic noise is most evident in cities, where over half of the population is exposed to road noise levels above the WHO guidelines for the day-evening-night period, while many people are also affected by noise from aircraft and railways. 

As a result, there are ambitious targets to reduce noise pollution via the European Commission’s Zero Pollution Action Plan and the EU Environmental Noise Directive (END). The Zero Pollution Action Plan aims to reduce the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30% by 2030. The END is equally ambitious and aims to produce strategic noise maps for all major roads, railways, airports, and urban areas using harmonised noise indicators, and determine how many people are exposed to transport noise. The results can guide policymakers in adopting action plans targeting the root causes in the noise mapping, which helps prevent and reduce environmental noise, especially in areas where exposure levels affect human health. 

With concerted policy action such as these endeavours, noise pollution – and its potential negative impact on hearing health, overall health and quality of life – could be markedly reduced. While the END is a powerful tool for noise prevention, the Commission finds it could be enforced more strongly and aims at a revision. However, this plan has been in the pipeline for several years already, and there is still no timeline indicated as of late 2023. To address the harms caused by noise pollution, EHIMA calls on the European Commission to act on the findings of its own evaluation and propose a revision of the END early during the next legislature, which will start in 2024. 

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