Study says EU moving too slowly on noise pollution

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Ambitious vehicle noise reduction proposals would enable eight million people to sleep soundly, cut noise annoyance by 39% and save €326 billion over 20 years, a Dutch research group says in a new report.

The cumulative effect, says the organisation that commissioned the report, is that “the benefits of cutting noise outweigh the costs by more than 30 times.”   

The European Parliament’s environment, transport and internal market committees are currently considering a draft EU regulation tightening automobile noise emission limits that was produced last December.

But the study by the TNO consultancy effectively argues that this does not go far enough, or fast enough. The study was commissioned by the Netherlands' environment ministry and the pressure group Transport and Environment (T&E),

“To speed up the benefits of noise reduction, you need bring forward the timetable for implementation,”  Nina Penshaw, a T&E spokeswoman, told EURACTIV.

“You could ask industry to reach an overall noise reduction equivalent to taking half of today’s traffic off the road,” she said.

Health problem

Road traffic noise is Europe’s most ubiquitous environmental health problem, with more than 44% of the population – 210 million people – estimated to regularly suffer volumes above 55 decibels.

At this level, voices must be raised to become audible and medical risks increase correspondingly, according to the World Health Organization.

Traffic noise can raise blood pressure, increase stress hormone levels and trigger cardiovascular problems, hypertension and mental illness. It can also cause insomnia, poor work performance and annoyance.

One recent study by CE Delft found that 50,000 people died prematurely and 200,000 suffered from cardiovascular disease each year in the EU because of traffic noise.

Reducing noise levels would save €89 billion in health costs by 2030, shave €8 billion off insulation expenses and add €229 billion to the property values, the TNO report says.

In 2012, Brussels proposed legislation with milestones in 2014 and 2017 to reduce noise levels for new cars and vans by 4 decibels and for new lorries and buses by 3 decibels.

The aim is to reduce the amount of people ‘highly annoyed’ by noise pollution by a quarter. But the new standards would not affect older auto models and because the sale of non-compliant noisy vehicles would not be restricted until 2019, the legislation’s benefits may only be fully felt after 2030.

‘Five step plan’

As a result, a coalition including T&E, the European Environmental Bureau and Environment Alliance are taking up the TNO alternative proposal with a call to the European Commission to implement a five step plan by:

  • Bringing the proposed new legislation’s milestones forward to 2013 and 2015;
  • Introducing a new milestone in 2020 for a further 2 decibel noise cut;
  • Preventing vehicles from distorting noise tests by using ‘ultra-quiet tyres’;
  • Requiring vehicle manufacturers to provide consumers with noise information;
  • Enforcing stricter limits for peak noise levels at 90 decibels.

An EU spokeswoman told EURACTIV that “the Commission has set the ball rolling towards the revision of the Noise Directive, and expects this to be concluded during the course of the current mandate.”

The European Parliament’s environment, transport and internal market committees are due to vote on the regulation this summer.

Noise above a volume threshold of 60 decibels affects not just the wellbeing but also the physical health of citizens, according to the European Environment Agency. The World Health Organisation described it as second only to air pollution as a public health hazard, and said that one million ‘healthy life years’ were lost each 12 months in Europe as a result of traffic-related noise.

Early EU noise regulations were based on internal market objectives. These were mainly focusing on setting harmonised noise limits for motor vehicles, household appliances and other noise-generating products. But as more information about the health impacts of noise emerged, more extensive measures were suggested.

In 2002 the EU adopted the Environmental Noise Directive setting out a community-based approach to the management and evaluation of ambient noise. On 1 June 2011, the Commission published its first implementation report on that directive and in December of that year, a proposal to regulate the sound level of motor vehicles.

  • Summer 2012: the European Parliament's environment, internal market and transport committees are due to vote on the proposed legislation to regulate sound levels of motor vehicles

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