Swiss begin to bang the anti-noise drum
Switzerland is taking part in International Noise Awareness Day on Wednesday for the first time.
Campaigners say quality of life should be protected by placing stricter limits on noise pollution – estimated to affect one million people in Switzerland.
Complaints about noise have been getting louder in parts of Zurich since October 2003. That was when early morning and night flights into the city's airport started using a southern approach over some of the most affluent suburbs.
The controversial move came after Germany imposed restrictions on flight paths to protect southern Germany from aircraft noise.
Opponents of aircraft noise argue that their human rights are being abused, claiming they have a right to peace and quiet and that their quality of life is being ruined.
It is estimated that aircraft noise pollution affects 50,000 people in Switzerland and causes costs of around SFr1 billion ($840 million) a year. This figure includes health costs and the economic consequences of lower income from rent.
Markus Kälin used to be a professional pilot and is now a local councillor in Bergdietikon, a village under the flight paths.
"Last week I was out on my balcony and I could see that the number of planes has doubled," he told swissinfo. "There’s almost one plane a minute over Bergdietikon".
"However I’m a flying fan and I’m not disturbed by the noise – it’s music for me! – but the people in Bergdietikon organised a petition against the noise and that’s what I’m working on now. The people are putting a lot of pressure on the council."
Noise makes you ill
"Many people are at the end of their tether," says Bernhard Aufdereggen from the organisation Doctors for the Environment. "Permanent stress through noise can lead to long-term high blood pressure and an increase in cardiovascular illnesses such as heart attacks."
Urs Jörg, head of the anti-noise department at the Swiss environment agency, agrees: "Noise makes you ill – that much has been proven."
Katja Wirth, the author of a study into aircraft noise pollution around Zurich airport, agrees that noise can be harmful.
But she points out that other factors can also have an impact on the health of those living in noisy areas.
"People react not only to noise, they also react to change," Wirth told swissinfo.
"It seems that in regions which never had noise before – as opposed to places which already had noise but less of it – people are much more annoyed than they should be based on statistical averages."
Wirth believes there are sociological reasons as to why people across the world seem to be more sensitive to noise pollution.
She says that one theory is that risks to society are increasing but they can’t be seen, so people feel more threatened.
"Flying, for example, was a luxury 50 years ago and the side-effects weren’t so important as very few people flew, but today everybody can fly as it’s very cheap," she said.
"The status of flying and a lot of other things in society has changed so that the side-effects are more important but difficult to assess."
Wirth says that noise pollution is likely to rise because mobility is increasing. This could also lead to social problems, she adds.
"As traffic noise increases and more people want to live where it is quiet, there will be a greater segregation between rich people who can afford a quiet area and poor people who can’t," Wirth says. "I think this will be a big problem and one of the greatest challenges facing policy makers."
But former pilot Kälin is more positive. "Planes will get engines which make less noise and I think the noise level will stay more or less the same," he says.
"Already the Airbus A340 from [the national carrier] Swiss has engines with almost half the power but which are more environmentally friendly."
Meanwhile the authorities say they want to protect peace and quiet as well as fight noise.
The environment agency’s Jörg says quiet zones – which up to now have had no legal basis – should be places "where you can hear the wind blowing or the birds singing".
And bells ringing? "It’s funny," says Wirth. "People often send us emails asking about bells – church bells, cow bells... there is noise pollution everywhere!"
swissinfo, Thomas Stephens
April 20 marks International Noise Awareness Day across Europe.
Zurich airport faces Europe’s toughest noise restrictions. It is the only airfield to shut down its runways from 11pm to 6am.
A business magazine estimated that increased use of Zurich’s southern runway would see property lose between SFr1.1 billion and SFr8 billion ($0.9-6.7 billion) in value.
In March 2003 the Swiss parliament rejected an accord limiting the number of flights over southern Germany before landing in Zurich.
Berlin then banned flights over parts of this main approach to Zurich airport between 9pm and 7am.
The restrictions cut these flights to 80,000 a year, forcing the airport to implement in October 2003 a controversial southern approach over Zurich.
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