Noise can have a significant impact on our health, beyond being annoying or disturbing sleep. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has carried out a new study to better understand how noise can affect health and well-being. The research builds on long-established evidence that living in an area with higher levels of traffic noise can lead to stress and sleep disturbances, and the latest research shows that this can lead to an increased risk of people from developing more serious health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes. In 2018, the World Health Organization also published noise guidelines to highlight these issues.
Led by UKHSA’s Dr Benjamin Fenech with Professor Anna Hansell from the University of Leicester and Prof John Gulliver (now at St George’s, University of London), the study is the first detailed assessment of its kind, assessing the impact of transportation on health. noise in all the local authorities of England.
How can we measure the disease burden of noise?
To measure the impact of noise on health, the researchers used an internationally recognized standard metric called Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). A DALY represents the loss of one year of good health.
The team’s findings show that around 100,000 DALYs were lost in England in 2018 due to road traffic noise. Another 13,000 were lost to railway noise and 17,000 to aircraft noise. Most of these losses were due to chronic ailments and sleep disturbances, followed by stroke, ischemic heart disease, and diabetes.
In studies like this, “noise annoyance” has a specific meaning: it refers to people who are very annoyed or disturbed by noise for a long period of time. This can have a direct impact on your well-being and quality of life. It can also increase your risk of developing serious health problems such as depression, anxiety, and heart disease.
Where is noise a health problem?
The impact of noise on health varied between regions and local authority districts: these disparities can be attributed to variations in noise levels, population density and local disease burden.
For example, the London, South East and North West regions had the highest number of DALYs lost to road traffic noise. London also had the highest number of DALYs attributable to aircraft noise. It is important to note that these estimates may be conservative because the study only included roads with high traffic volumes and excluded people exposed to lower levels of traffic noise.
The study found that 40% of all adults in England were exposed to long-term average traffic noise levels that exceeded 50 decibels (dB), but the percentages varied between different areas. Health effects are more likely to be detected if people are exposed to noise levels above 50 dB Lden, which is around the noise level you would see on a quiet street. About 5% of the population in England experienced aircraft noise above 50 dB, with highest concentrations in and around London. Approximately 5% were exposed to rail noise greater than 50 dB, with less variation between local authorities than for road and aircraft noise.
As this is the first assessment of its kind in England, the study can be considered as a baseline on which future studies will be built. Comparison of trends over years both within England and between countries is difficult due to differing approaches to noise measurement methods.
How can our research address the problem?
Many people still view noise as simply a nuisance, rather than a threat to public health. Our research adds to the growing body of evidence showing that major sources of noise, such as road traffic, train noise, and aircraft noise, contribute to the burden of disease in the population.
Our study demonstrates the need to consider the health impacts of noise in the decision-making process for new transportation infrastructure and urban planning, such as improved acoustic design of residential development. It also supports interventions to reduce noise exposure, within existing transportation infrastructure, such as road surfaces, quieter tires and vehicles, smoother wheels and tracks for trains, and proper design of flight paths. Measures to help reduce noise exposure should help prevent harmful effects on our health.
To learn more about the study and its findings, you can read the full report here.