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Nearly 60 million Europeans living with excessive noise pollution from road traffic

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Nearly 60 million adults living in European cities are subjected to unhealthy levels of vehicle-generated noise that is detrimental to their health, a study has found.

Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health assessed the levels of noise generated by road traffic and examined its impact on health in 749 European cities.

They said that compliance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) noise-level guidelines could prevent 3,600 deaths annually from heart disease alone.

Road traffic is the main source of environmental noise. Previous research has linked environmental noise to a range of adverse health effects: sleep disturbance, annoyance, cardiovascular and metabolic disease, adverse birth outcomes, cognitive impairment, poor mental health and well-being, and premature mortality.

Long-term exposure to road traffic noise can also cause a sustained stress reaction, which results in the release of stress hormones and increases in heart rate, blood pressure and vasoconstriction, eventually leading to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety disorders.

For this study, data on European cities were retrieved from the Urban Audit 2018 dataset. Road traffic noise exposure was estimated using noise maps produced by countries and cities under the current European legislative framework or available from local sources.

The results showed that more than 48 per cent of the 123 million adults (aged 20 years or older) included in the study were exposed to noise levels exceeding the WHO-recommended threshold.

Specifically, the WHO recommendation states that the average noise level recorded over a 24-hour period should not exceed 53 decibels.

The percentage of the population exposed to higher-than-recommended noise levels in Europe’s capital cities ranges from 29.8 per cent in Berlin to 86.5 per cent in Vienna, including 43.8 per cent in Madrid and 60.5 per cent in Rome.

The study also found that more than 11 million adults were 'highly annoyed' by road traffic noise, which was defined as the repeated disturbance of everyday activities, such as communicating, reading, working and sleeping.

“Our results provide, for the first time, a comprehensive picture of European cities and a clearer understanding of why transport-generated noise is the second major environmental cause of adverse health outcomes in western Europe, after airborne particulate matter,” explained researcher Sasha Khomenko, lead author of the study.

“Even so, we are convinced that the true health impact of traffic noise is much greater, as the lack of city-level data limits the health effects we can assess, thus leading to an underestimation of the impact.”

Senior author of the study Mark Nieuwenhuijsen said: “The European directive on environmental noise made strategic noise-mapping mandatory, but it did not set out a specific methodology or guidelines, so the results have been mixed.

“The EU member states have had a common methodology since January 2019, so we can expect to see much more comprehensive and accurate health impact assessments of traffic noise in the coming years.”

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