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Noise pollution

Noise is an increasingly omnipresent, yet underestimated, form of pollution. Long periods of exposure to relatively low levels of noise can have adverse effects on human health, such as raised blood pressure, hypertension, disrupted sleep and cognitive development in children (Kiernan, 1997b), diminished working memory span, and psychiatric disorders (Bond, 1996).
An estimated 80 million people suffer unacceptable levels of continuous outdoor transport noise within the EU (New Scientist, 1998). In Amsterdam, 29% of the city's inhabitants complain of noisy neighbours, 28% are regularly disturbed by the jarring sounds of traffic, and 26% suffer the dissonance that comes from living under the airport flight paths. In Great Britain survey results showed that for 7% of homes in Britain, noise levels outside the building were more than 68 dB (Bond, 1996). Even in the American national parks, it is estimated that noise-free intervals rarely exceed several minutes (Geary, 1996).

The World Health Organisation's guidelines recommend a nighttime average level of noise suitable for undisturbed sleep of from 35 to 30 dB, and include a peak nighttime maximum of 45 decibels. However, an OECD survey of traffic noise estimates that 16% of people in Europe suffer more than 40 dB in their bedrooms at night (Bond, 1996). In the United States, a conservation initiative has been established with the goal of creating sites where human-caused noise pollution will not be tolerated (Geary, 1996). Furthermore, every city in the European Union with more than 250,000 inhabitants will be required to draw up 'noise maps' of their streets by 2002 (New Scientist, 1998). In the Netherlands, it is illegal to build houses in areas where 24-hour average noise levels exceed 50dB. And in Great Britain, the Noise Act gives local authorities powers to confiscate noisy equipment and to fine people who create excessive noise at night. Several countries are also investing in porous asphalt, which can cut traffic noise by up to 5dB.


Bond, Michael. 1996. "Plagued by noise", New Scientist, 16 November 1996, p. 14-15.

Geary, James. 1996. "Saving the sounds of silence", New Scientist, 13 April 1996, p. 45.

Kiernan, Vincent. 1997b. "Noise pollution robs kids of language skills". New Scientist, 10 May 1997, p. 5.

New Scientist. 1998. "Quiet please", New Scientist, 19 September 1998, p. 23.


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