The impact of noise on health

ANSES activities

Opinion surveys show that the French population attaches special and increasing importance to the right to a noise-free environment. However, the population still does not consider the effects of noise on health to be a major concern. Noise is seen more as a disturbance, a nuisance, or even as environmental pollution, rather than a real risk for health. It does not create the same concerns as other environmental risks and nuisance because it has no effect on the fundamental components of our living space like air and water, and most importantly, it is rare for noise to have immediate perceptible harmful effects on health. This article describes ANSES activities in this area.

Noise is described by the Académie Française as a sound or set of sounds that occurs with no regular harmony. Noise is a physical phenomenon, a sound giving rise to a negative perception in an individual that, in turn, cannot be measured directly. What may be music to one is often considered noise by a neighbour since we all have our own perception of what constitutes noise. This individual definition of noise depends on a number of contextual, personal and cultural factors. 

In addition to the harmful effects on hearing associated with high noise levels, more often observed in occupational exposure or risk behaviour (listening to loud music without protection, for example), other health effects of noise (known as "non-auditory") may occur at lower noise exposure levels. Environmental noise exposure related to transport, as well as to industrial or recreational activities, is the main cause of these non-auditory effects.

Noise pollution also depends on the characteristics of the sounds produced and on the specific characteristics of the person who hears them: noise frequency, clarity, intensity, suddenness, duration, individual susceptibility, and concomitant exposure to other risks (for example chemical agents or medicinal products), etc. This is one reason why, for the same level of exposure to noise, the non-auditory effects, such as discomfort or sleep disturbance, vary from one individual to another. It is this characteristic that makes them especially difficult to predict.

In 2003, the Agency received a formal request from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Environment to produce an overview of the methods used to evaluate and quantify the health effects of noise, with special attention paid to exposure of susceptible populations including children and adolescents, the elderly, shift workers, and people living near motorways and airports. This overview was carried out within the framework of European Directive 2002/49/EC establishing objectives in terms of protection against noise pollution, and included an evaluation of scientific knowledge on the relevance of indicators used in French regulations.

In addition, in June 2006, the Agency was formally requested by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Environment to analyse the recommendations made by the French National Academy of Medicine, which had conducted a study aimed at evaluating the effects of noise generated by wind turbines on human health. 

In November 2009, the Agency received another formal request from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Environment to develop operational indicators together with reference and management values that could gauge the health effects associated with occasional noise events to be used as part of the health impact assessments related to noise from land transport and activities. Given that, in the present state of knowledge, it was not feasible to define indices and indicators responding satisfactorily to the issue, the working group developed a method for assessing the non-auditory health impacts related to noise that included non-acoustic psychological, social and territorial determinants.