Cut Noise

Noise Worldwide and Widespread


Across the world more people are disturbed by noise on a daily basis than by any other pollutant on earth.

It may be surprising fact. Noise regularly tops the list of complaints in Rio de Janeiro.  And Rio is not untypical. In Europe hundreds of millions are exposed daily to noise levels which the World Health Organisation (WHO) regards as unacceptable. 

The most recent statistics from the UK Government reveal that, although 72% of respondents had a positive attitude to their local noise environment, 48% of people feel their home life is spoilt to some extent by noise.

In the UK

5 million people are significantly impacted by road traffic noise;

7 million by neighbour noise;

2.5 million by aircraft noise.

Yet in the eyes of many decision-makers noise remains the ‘Cinderella’ pollutant. 

London: the noisiest city in Europe?

London is shaping up to be the noisiest city in Europe. It leads the way on road and aircraft noise. Its restaurants and cafes have been voted the second loudest in the world. Only San Francisco tops them. And it is doubtful if any metro system in Europe can match the number and volume of the announcements on London Underground.

Traffic Noise

A recent UN report identified London’s traffic as the noisiest in Europe

A new interactive map allows residents to listen to the traffic noise in London. They can zoom in on their own street using The London Noisy City Map, created by the climate charity Possible and Jetpack AI, using Government data The EU argues that when noise averages out at over 55 decibels is can become harmful. (The World Health Organisation puts it lower). And, remember, decibels are not a linear scale. Instead, we experience an increase of 10 decibels as a doubling of loudness. For example, 80 decibels is four times louder than 60 decibels.

Aircraft Noise

The European Commission has estimated that 28% of all people potentially disturbed by aircraft noise across Europe are under the Heathrow flight paths. Pre-pandemic, it amounts to over 700,000 people. Add that to around the 74,000 potentially annoyed by London City Airport. Although only the 14th largest airport in the UK, London City impacts more people than any other airport except Heathrow and Manchester.

Restaurant and Café Noise

Figures released by Soundprint reveal London’s restaurants are the loudest in Europe More than half of the capital’s food venues are too noisy to hold a conversation, with decibel levels the same as a lawn mower. In the worst cases, you might as well be eating your dinner next to a bin lorry.

Sound data was collected randomly at 1,350 popular London eateries for a survey. In over half of cases decibel levels were above 76 dBA, defined as safe for hearing but difficult for conversation. Anything above 80 dBA is considered unsafe for the human ear. During peak times, 50 per cent of London restaurants exceeded the dangerous noise level of 80 dBA, and 80 per cent hit the point at which chitchat becomes a struggle.

London Underground

A study published last year by the UK Noise Association revealed that platform announcements on London Underground can reach 98 decibels, louder than a plane landing at Heathrow. The study looked at the relevance, volume and frequency of the announcements made on the London Underground network. It found on average there is an announcement on London Underground trains every 42 seconds:

So can any city in Europe match London for noise? I doubt it. Isn’t there a strong case for a Noise Czar for London with a clear remit to reduce noise levels?

John Stewart, 27/6/22


When noise really disturbs.....


‘I have never seen anything that affects people like noise does’ Pamela Parker Shine, a noise inspector in Montgomery County, USA

When noise becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives and people will move mountains to get rid of it.

It can be difficult for people who haven’t been really disturbed by noise to understand the lengths those who are disturbed will go to get rid of it.

I wrote in my book Why Noise Matters, published in 2011:

When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives. It always seems to be there, an ever-present shadow, darting, taunting, tantalising; forever just out of reach. The desire to get rid of the offending noise by almost any means possible can become overwhelming. People spend their waking – and sleeping – hours fantasising on how to stop it. They dream of poisoning the barking dog; of shooting down the roaring jet; of smashing the neighbour’s stereo; or of derailing the latest lorry that thunders past.” 

And, for the most part, we are talking about your average person who led a fairly typical life until the noise hit. Some will be amongst the 10% of people the German psychologist Rainer Guski identified as particularly noise sensitive. Many will not. 

Most noise sufferers are not good, certainly initially, at solutions. They just want rid of the noise. But they often don’t know how to go about it. They have not been in this situation before. They are not campaigners or politicians. But the drive to get rid of the noise means many find themselves doing things they never imagined they would: going to rallies; attending public meetings; taking part in demonstrations; writing letters; speaking with lawyers; neglecting family; foregoing a social life. I once said to a noise sufferer “I’ll buy you a drink if you win your battle”. He replied: “I’m glad you offered. I’ve forgotten how to go to the bar!” Noise. Driving ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Millions around the world are not just irritated by noise but deeply distrubed by an aspect of it.  Many don't have the choice to move away.  The real tragedy is that the solutions do exist to cut noise.

And it's why the UK Noise Association exists. It is why Cut Noise set up this block.

John Stewart 

Listen out for the voice of the voiceless


The better-off we are, the louder our complaints about any noise problem we may have. It can give the impression that noise is not really a concern for people who are less well-off.

Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.

The danger is that the loud voices of the better-off over-influence decision-makers and so tilt policy decisions in their favour.

But before looking at some of it, it is worth making this distinction. Communities, areas, places can be impacted by noise but not necessarily disturbed by it.

To get a true picture of who is disturbed by noise both issues need to be addressed.

What is very clear is that in Britain and across the world poorer communities are the most impacted by noise.

I suspect aircraft noise may be the partial exception to this. It obviously depends on where an airport is sited but many flight paths fly over rich and poor communities alike. At Heathrow, for example, some of the wealthiest communities in the land – places like Richmond and Teddington – are overflown but so are some of the most densely-populated and deprived wards in Europe. Even in aviation, though, there may be some bias against poorer communities. Would a developer have dared to build London City Airport in the 1980s on fashionable Hampstead Heath instead of run-down North Woolwich? I know I’m being a bit unfair because there was no reason to build an airport on Hampstead Heath while the justification for it in East London was to regenerate an area devastated by the closure of the Docks.

But would Hampstead ever be considered for an airport even though, on reflection, there might be a market for private jets there. After all The Bishops Avenue is close by, home to monarchs, business magnates, and celebrities – in the famous words of an estate agent: "Among the wealthiest circles in the world, The Bishops Avenue is better known than Buckingham Palace. It's a significant demonstration of status. If you live there, you don't need to explain to people that you're rich." Houses go on the market for up to £65 million. But a new airport nearby is just inconceivable.

Traffic noise has been described as largely a main road problem.  It still is problem on main roads but over the past decade it is 'residential' roads which saw the biggest increase in traffic as sat-nav guided cars on to these roads and deliveries increased. But prior to that the increase in main road traffic was partly and ironically the result of the ‘progressive’ traffic policies pursued over the previous 20 years. Traffic-calming on, and closures of, ‘residential’ roads funnelled traffic on to the main roads which for many low-income residents (and others) are their ‘residential’ roads.

Plans to reduce or tame traffic on ‘residential’ roads can only have all-round benefits if they include proposals to cut traffic on the adjacent main roads at the same time. It can be done by reallocating road space on the main roads away from cars to other modes of transport through, for example, installing bus and cycle lanes. But it is hit and miss. The impact of the current generation of low traffic neighbourhoods is to add to traffic on main roads, rather than reduce it.

Anybody can have noisy neighbours but we are a lot more likely to do so if we are less well-off. A MORI survey revealed that almost 20% of people with a household income of less than £17,500 (2003 prices) regularly heard noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants. In contrast only 12% of people with an income of over £30,000 could hear their neighbours.

It is a similar picture with wind turbine noise. When I wrote a short report called 'Location, Location, Location' in 2006 on wind turbine noise, it became clear to me that those most affected by wind farm noise were poorer communities in rural areas.

OK, so it is fairly clear that noise disproportionately impacts low-income communities. But are they also the people most disturbed by it?

There is some truth that people can adapt to noisy surroundings, particularly if it is the only world they have known. There is also evidence that some people like noise; that it is silence which disturbs them. But is a very big jump from there to argue that because people in low-income communities complain less about noise they are not disturbed by it.

There is evidence of very real disturbance. When I did work on surface level transport matters 25 years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with local communities (mainly about the provision of public transport). In the poorer areas if Inner London there were some complaints about buses and trains, but, invariably, the conversation turned to traffic. That was the big concern: the air pollution and noise it caused; the danger it posed and the way it divided communities. Yet rarely did the communities have the time or resources to set up an action group. Today, in many of our towns and cities people from BAME communities often are the main people living in these areas.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from the emerging economies of the ‘developing’ world. I covered it extensively in my book Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011. This from Dr Yeswant Oke, a medical consultant and anti-noise campaigner In Mumbai (where noise levels are extraordinarily high): ‘People and patients are silently suffering as they feel helpless. People feel agitated and angry, impotent to some extent. Indians are very docile. They would rather suffer than have enmity with the neighbours. But lately patience is wearing thin, and more and more people are complaining to get relief.’

A survey in Vietnam found that over a fifth of residents in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are highly annoyed by the typical daily noise levels in the cities. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The concern about noise is there. It is just that it is not been voiced publicly.

The obvious danger is that, if the concerned voices of poorer communities are not being raised or not being heard, the louder, more confident voices of those of us who are better-off will drive policy much more than we should. We will get our peace and quiet….but perhaps at the expense of the voiceless.

This is what has happened on the roads. For decades confident voices pushed the traffic away from their streets on to the main roads. And, in a double whammy against those living on main roads, the ‘confident voices’ drive regularly along these roads past the homes of people many of whom were less likely to have a car.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in aviation. Communities with confident voices can get special treatment. And those communities less well-resourced can be more or less sidelined. I think the only explanation why communities in Glasgow – one of the most heavily overflown cities in Britain – have been ignored by the airport for so long is that the flight paths are over some of the most deprived areas in the country.

My conclusion is not that well-heeled communities should shut up. It is that local authorities and national governments don their headphones, turn up the volume in order to try and hear – and then act on – the complaints, often whispered, from poorer and less well-resourced communities.

John Stewart

We can’t go back to our old noisy world

by Jenni Russell

This article first appeared in the Times (21/5/20).  Jenni Russell is a regular columnist on the paper

One of the great compensations of lockdown is hearing less noise, at least of the external, ungovernable kind. One’s own children at home, quarrelling or competing, is another matter. At least one can shout back at them. Everywhere people are marvelling at hearing the complexity of birdsong, the peacefulness of streets with so little traffic, the pleasure of walking in parks without aircraft rumbling overhead.

The drop in noise is so marked that it has been picked up by the British Geological Survey as a dramatic fall in ground vibrations. The planet itself is quieter because we are. At the end of last month they reported that the noise generated by our daily lives at 100 measuring stations had dropped by between 20 and 50 per cent.

The falls were greatest near railway stations, airports, big roads and construction sites. A seismometer near King’s Cross station in London recorded a 30 per cent fall; even Twickenham is down 25 per cent. The same pattern is being seen across the world. Brussels’s noise has fallen by a third, and Germany’s car traffic is down by 50 per cent.

This is a remarkable, temporary liberation from one of the greatest and least considered sources of stress in our lives. Most of us are battered by noise every day but it is worst for those who live in towns and cities, or who travel to them. The imposition of noise and the level of it has risen sharply over the past 40 years. It is not just more planes, more cars, and more construction, but the rise of amplified sound in almost every private and public space, from the piped music in shops, bars and restaurants to the interminable, ear-splitting, repetitive announcements on buses and trains, the thudding from car radios, boom boxes or a passenger’s headphones, the inflicting of a neighbour’s party music at midnight on everyone a few hundred metres away.

We feel impotent in the face of this onslaught. Rising noise feels like an unavoidable fact of life, one that we care deeply about but cannot influence. More than a third of people dislike piped music; fewer than a third like it. This year the organisation Action on Hearing Loss found that 80 per cent had cut short their visits to a pub or restaurant because of noise.

A 2014 survey found that in a typical year more residents complain to their local councils about noise than about any other issue. They are right to care. Noise is not something we should shrug off as an intrusion we must learn to live with or be more tolerant of. It is destructive both for our bodies and for our minds.

Our understanding of the damage it causes is accumulating with every new piece of research. In February Joshua Dean from the University of Chicago found that noise is an undetected performance killer, undermining the brain’s ability to focus. When the same task was given to 128 workmen to perform against different noise levels, a slight increase in noise, of just 10db — the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner rather than a dishwasher — reduced productivity by 5 per cent. The workers were quite unaware of this, as noise affected their cognition rather than their effort.

As Dean points out, there are several significant aspects to this. Companies are always desperate to push up productivity, which in Britain has scarcely risen in a decade. A 5 per cent difference in performance is dramatic. Just for context, British productivity has increased by a miserly 0.3 per cent a year for the past ten years, down from 2 per cent annually in the decade before.

The findings have implications for every job performed against high noise. Anyone who must take in multiple sources of information and focus, from a factory foreman to a traffic policeman, will function less well than they should. Our minds may try to accept noise; physiologically, our bodies cannot. It affects our hearts, blood pressure, our chances of stroke.

Last autumn the European Heart Journal showed how long-term exposure to traffic and aircraft noise increases heart disease. A five-year study of 500 adults found that for every 5db increase in average noise over 24 hours, there was a 34 per cent increase in heart attacks and strokes. Brain imaging exposed the mechanism. Higher noise levels triggered activity in the amygdala, which processes stress and fear, and increased arterial inflammation. Other studies have shown that even noise we are unaware of, heard during sleep, raises adrenaline and cortisol and disturbs our rest. In America, a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol in those exposed to loud noise at work.

In a German study, people vexed by noise had a higher risk of having their hearts thrown out of rhythm by atrial fibrillation. As a killer and a pollutant, noise has never grabbed public attention in the way climate change and environmental pollution have. Perhaps that’s because its effects are, paradoxically, silent and hard to see, except individually, in our racing hearts. The government officially considers noise “an inevitable consequence of a mature and vibrant society”.

We all want jobs and prosperity but now that we have glimpsed the effects of greater peace this shouldn’t happen just as before. Let’s campaign for more bicycles, quieter road surfaces, lower speeds, fewer planes, minimal announcements, restrictions on the construction hours the government has just, mistakenly, extended. It’s what our hearts and minds not only want but cannot flourish without.

Noise Pollution Is a Thing, and It’s Making You Sick


Peace and quiet is a powerful health hack

by Markham Heid reprinted from the Nuance (1/11/18) 

Back in 1896, a journal article titled “The Plague of City Noises” set off the 19th century’s version of a Twitter meltdown. The article highlighted “the injurious and exhausting effects of city noises on the auditory apparatus, and on the whole nervous system,” and generated “hundreds” of editorial comments and “scores” of private letters across the United States and Europe. “Almost without exception… the medical press agreed with the contention that the noises of our modern cities are not only a source of great discomfort, but are largely life-shortening and health-wrecking in their effects,” the author of an article on the phenomenon wrote the following year.

Fast-forward to 2011, and a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) came to similar conclusions. The authors concluded that in western Europe alone, roughly 1 million healthy life years are lost each year as a result of traffic-related noise. Noise is inherently arousing, and the long-term effects of “chronic noise stress” on the human hormone and nervous systems are a growing concern, the report states. Just as the human digestive system can be overwhelmed by the sugar and calories packed into contemporary diets, noise pollution experts say the human brain and nervous system can be overwhelmed by the amount of ambient noise packed into contemporary life.

“You can close your eyes, but you cannot close your ears.” “The auditory system is continuously analyzing acoustic information, including unwanted and disturbing sound, which is filtered and interpreted by different brain structures,” says Wolfgang Babisch, a former research scientist with Germany’s Federal Environment Agency who has studied the effects of noise on human health and authored a chapter of the WHO report. Our brain’s always-on auditory system was designed to operate in natural environments — not in cacophonous cities and suburbs.

There’s increasing evidence that ambient-noise exposure can contribute to metabolic disorders ike Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, Babisch says. There’s also evidence linking noise-related annoyance to poorer mental health.

How can noise do damage? Loud or unpredictable sounds can activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and trigger an increase in stress-related hormones like epinephrine and cortisol, Babisch says. Over time, this SNS activation and its accompanying stress-hormone spikes can lead to increases in blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood viscosity, which in turn can contribute to health problems.

A study published this year by Thomas Münzel, a professor of medicine at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, found that exposure to loud environmental noise can also increase a person’s risk for irregular heartbeat. In another 2018 report, Münzel detailed the ties between loud noise and heart failure, heart attack, and stroke — as well as noise’s negative impact on a person’s sleep and cognitive performance. He says anything as loud as about 70 decibels — roughly the noise generated by a passing car — could be considered “unhealthy noise,” because it can disturb sleep, and poor sleep is a risk factor for health issues ranging from heart disease to obesity to diabetes. “You can close your eyes, but you cannot close your ears,” Münzel says.

"You can close your eyes but you cannot close your ears"

During sleep, sudden or loud noises can lead to significant increases in a person’s blood pressure, even if that person doesn’t wake up, he says. The effect different noises have on your health depends in large part on context and your sensitivity to the sound. “People can acclimate to noise,” Babisch says. A longtime city dweller may not notice, or mind, the ambient clatter outside her urban office window, while these same sounds may rile a person accustomed to quieter, rural environments.

But regardless of its decibel level, any noise that disrupts your concentration or annoys you — whether it’s your co-worker’s laugh, a neighbor’s barking dog, or your kids’ shouting — is enough to activate your nervous system and contribute to negative effects, including raising your risk for mental illness. “The higher the degree of annoyance, the higher the likelihood of depression and anxiety disorders,” Münzel adds. Along with disrupting sleep, annoying noises promote stress, which can contribute to these conditions, his research suggests.

Even music can be arousing and stress-inducing, says Joanne Loewy, an assistant professor and director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. Up-tempo music with a lot of notes can accelerate a listener’s heart rate and breathing. While this can be helpful during exercise or those times when you want to pump yourself up, it’s not so great when you’re driving in heavy traffic or trying to unwind, she says.

Masking or blocking out loud or annoying sounds whenever possible can help combat all of their negative health effects. Depending on the situation, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can help with this, Babisch says. So can soft music, fans, or white-noise machines — all of which can cover up distracting noises.

There’s also evidence that listening to natural ambient sounds — rain, the rustling of leaves, the tumble of ocean waves — can help calm your nervous system and combat stress. Total silence, on the other hand, should not be your goal. Just as the human brain and auditory system weren’t designed to live in noisy environments, they also don’t seem to respond well to an absence of sound. “Complete silence can also cause stress,” Münzel says.

The bottom line is that life has gotten loud. It may be time to turn down the volume.