Noise is a by-product of modern life but is the price we are paying for increased mobility and development too high? Urs Walker of the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment tells swissinfo.ch that the real battle against noise is only beginning.
An estimated one in six Swiss residents is exposed to harmful levels of noise in their daily life, a rate in line with the European average. Progress has been made in noise reduction but it still remains one of the most serious and underestimated environmental problems of our age.
Around 1.3 million of Switzerland’s eight million inhabitants are exposed to too much noise, according to the Swiss authorities.
Walker, head of the Office of the Environment’s noise abatement unit, said most problems with industrial noise were resolved with the setting of noise limits introduced in 1987. Today the major source of noise is road, rail and air transport.
He believes it is time for us to recognise peace and quiet as a valuable resource for our lives, without which we could not exist.
swissinfo.ch: If we cannot turn back the clock on increased mobility, shouldn’t we just accept that noise is the price we pay for progress?
Urs Walker: Noise is often seen as a by-product of civilisation that just has to be put up with, like a waste product that goes hand in hand with increased mobility. But noise can be damaging to our health when levels are too high for too long. It is not something that we can get used to. We may think we are used to it but the body will not get used to it. The organism will react to this noise burden and therefore I think it’s wrong to accept excessive noise levels as a necessary evil. We have to do something about it.
swissinfo.ch: Is it still possible to find peace and quiet in everyday life in Switzerland?
U.W.: I think there are still quiet oases in Switzerland, especially in the forests and the mountains but there are increasingly fewer of them. That means there is continually more noise that is reaching as far as the alpine valleys.
Quiet is an invisible asset. Without quiet we could not exist at all. I’m not talking about deathly quiet in the desert but a natural level of sound from the surrounding landscape that is important to our wellbeing as people. We don’t just need this in the alpine meadows but near to where we live and work.
swissinfo.ch: Noise has become a societal problem, leading to conflict and court cases. How can this be addressed?
U.W.: That is one of the main challenges particularly for the future. One example is people who go to nightclubs in towns in the evening at weekends to enjoy themselves at the same time as there are local residents who want to sleep. It is difficult to reconcile these different needs but we have to find solutions.
The other problem is that the traditional shared values of when one should be quiet and not are no longer universal. Younger and older people are increasingly moving apart on this issue.
Side-effects of noise
Noise causes stress and can make a person ill. Each disruptive noise puts the body in a state of alert, causing it to release stress hormones such as adrenalin or cortisol, the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases and breathing becomes faster. Other effects include:
Problems with concentration
High blood pressure
(Source: Swiss Federal Office of the Environment)
swissinfo.ch: What about noise made by children. Have things got so bad that society cannot tolerate the most natural sound in the world – children at play?
U.W.: There are noise conflicts over children but I don’t like to use the term noise when talking about children. There have been court cases on this issue, in which the Federal Court has had to examine the issue and a certain practice has arisen. The important thing [to know]is that when children are in their homes or playing around them, they are not making noise that we regulate under environmental noise protection law. But naturally when it is sports facilities or large playgrounds, these are then facilities that must comply with the environment noise protection law.
It’s worth noting that in Germany the law has been changed to exempt children’s noise from these rules. I don’t think this is needed in Switzerland because the noise protection law is flexible enough in that it only applies where there are actual facilities that were especially built for children, such as playgrounds.
swissinfo: What has been achieved in noise protection in recent years?
U.W.: We can single out two or three things. One is certainly that since the mid-1980s every project involving roads or railways automatically has taken noise protection into account. That means noise protection is examined and implemented for every construction permit. There was a national CHF1.3 billion ($1.37 billion) programme of noise renovation for the railways. This programme is being continued, there is currently a submission in parliament.
In Switzerland, within this programme we upgraded all the railway carriages, fitting them with quieter braking systems. On the roads a lot has happened mainly with noise protection walls but also with speed reduction and quiet road surfacing being put in place in recent years.
swissinfo.ch: Where can we make improvements in the future?
U.W.: We can do a lot. On the technical side we need to begin with the major sources of noise – vehicles, streets and railways. Cars can be made quieter, tyres too. We have run an information campaign on this. As a consumer you can also buy an electric engine instead of petrol. And we intend to add economic incentives so that producers can push quieter products and consumers choose such products.
In planning, when a big development is being built, how the buildings are placed, how the rooms are situated and the choice of materials make a difference to the propagation of noise waves. The access roads and through roads also can be integrated into the planning. There is a lot of potential to reduce noise conflict there.
The law on the protection of the environment and measures for protection against noise aim to protect the population from harmful noise. The government has fixed certain limits for the main types of noise.
swissinfo: Is noise pollution the biggest environmental problem in Switzerland?
U.W.: Noise is a widespread environmental problem and we have estimated around 1.3 million people are exposed to too much noise in Switzerland. But whether this makes it the biggest environmental problem is difficult to say. It’s a particularly widespread problem in built-up areas but I wouldn’t want to weigh it up against other environmental risks and problems.
swissinfo: What are the consequences for health
U.W.: There has been scientific research on this question and the consequences are mainly seen in high blood pressure problems, which ultimately include heart attacks. The other problem area is sleep disturbance. Recent research has found that children living in noise-affected areas show a delay in cognitive development. We’ve also assessed how many disability adjusted life years are lost, using World Health Organization methods. We found 47,000 life years per annum are lost due to noise exposure, which is the same level of impact as fine particles in the atmosphere.