Noise nation: traffic biggest culprit in Spain’s sound wars

One in four Spaniards exposed to unsafe levels of acoustic pollution because of roads

Manuel Planelles

Around 12 million Spaniards, or 26% of the population, are exposed to high noise levels (above 55 decibels on average throughout the day) from traffic, says an EU report, which estimates that Spain and Europe’s roads are still the main source of acoustic pollution, with around 100 million people subjected to unsafe levels.

A traffic jam in Madrid.
A traffic jam in Madrid.Uly Martín

Today is International Noise Awareness day, and to mark the event, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has released a report on the problem based on a directive that obliges countries to take steps to reduce noise.

The EEA estimates that one in five people from its 33 member states, which aside from the EU’s 28 also includes Turkey, have to put up with noise levels above 55 decibels.

As a guideline, 55 decibels is the noise level of a normal conversation.

The WHO says that after air pollution, noise is the most damaging environmental problem for humans

A team from Barcelona’s Autonomous University is responsible for compiling the data Spain sends to the EEA. Miquel Sáinz de la Maza, one of the team, estimates that up to 15 million people in Spain could be suffering from high noise levels from traffic.

Based on the EEA’s website, the Spanish government has provided data on the country’s 42 most serious noise clusters. But data on around 20 more locations with populations of above 100,000 inhabitants are expected to be sent over the course of this year.

The EEA’s report says that road traffic is the main source of noise pollution in Europe, noting that 32 million people are subjected to daily noise levels of above 65 decibels.

Railroads are the second main source of noise, with 19 million people in Europe exposed to noise levels above 55 decibels. The third source is air traffic, with 4.1 million people living close to an airport, says the report. Around a million people are still affected by factories.

The EU directive only obliges member states to analyze these four main sources of noise pollution, while the World Health Organization (WHO) says that after air pollution, noise is the most damaging environmental problem for humans.

Spanish environmentalist NGO Ecologistas en Acción said in a statement that noise “causes stress, sleep problems, interferes with cognitive processes and can even lead to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.” It adds: “Recently, the European Commission, in revising compliance with EU environmental rules, has reprimanded Spain for its significant delay in preparing noise maps and adopting action plans.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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