It billows from factory chimneys and car exhausts – but in Europe, there’s another type pollution causing concern. One in five citizens is exposed to dangerous levels of noise pollution, a new study has found.

The High Death Toll of Noise Pollution

Physical and mental illness — including heart disease, stress, and insomnia — can all be linked to excessive noise. It seems hard to believe, but experts at the European Environment Agency (EEA) says around 12,000 premature deaths on the continent are caused each year by noise pollution. 

And humans are not the only victims: another study, published last year, showed that excessive unnatural sound adversely affect bird life, interfering with their communication and mating habits.

The Most Dangerous — and Common — Forms of Noise Pollution

Traffic noise seems to be the most dangerous for both animals and people. At present, 113 million individuals are harmed by road sounds that exceed 55 decibels, the level at which noise becomes dangerous, according to the World Health Organization. 

Railway noise is also a problem, affecting 22 million Europeans; as is sound from aircraft, which impacts around 4 million people (12,500 schoolchildren are estimated to have learning impairments linked to excessive airplane sounds).

What is the Solution?

It’s a bleak picture, but there are solutions. With traffic noise being the biggest danger, the onset of electric vehicles — far quieter than their combustion engine cousins — should help improve the situation. Similarly, congestion noise can be cut significantly by resurfacing roads with asphalt, which produces less noise than traditional paving materials. 

“Better management of traffic flows and reducing speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour,” will help too, the EEA said.

The surge in climate-consciousness on the continent also offers hope. With more and more bicycle paths and pedestrian zones being built, less noise polluting modes of transport are in the ascendancy.

Another new trend is having a positive impact: the creation of so-called quiet areas. In a significant number of countries, cities and regions noise-suppressed spaces — usually parks and other green places — are emerging. These oases of calm offer city-dwellers an escape from constant noise.  

Worry Remains About High Noise Levels

But still, EEA researchers are worried for the future. Increasing urbanization and travel mean dangerous noise levels are set only to increase in the coming decades, their study concluded.

It is a reflection, perhaps, of a continental split on the issue. The group’s study was hampered by certain EU member states failing to supply data on noise levels. Indeed, nearly one-third of the information requested by researchers was not provided, despite a legally-binding deadline in 2017. 

The lack of transparency suggests that “countries may not have taken the necessary steps to address noise pollution,” the EEA warned in a statement, adding that “the objective set for 2020 by the 7th Environmental Action Programme of decreasing noise pollution and moving towards the WHO recommended levels for noise exposure will not be achieved.”