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Where can you go for a bit of peace and quiet?

Laws and plans aplenty, but little tangible action to keep the noise down

The World Health Organisation has classified noise from road traffic as the second worst environmental stressor affecting human health in Europe. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The World Health Organisation has classified noise from road traffic as the second worst environmental stressor affecting human health in Europe. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Malta sticks out for having the lowest potential for quiet in a recent EU study.

Noise maps identify the only quiet havens away from noise pollution as limited to remote cliff areas and Comino.

The European Union is looking to “significantly” decrease noise pollution in its member states.

Reaching an EU-wide agreement on better technical assessment of noise in Member States is the aim of proposed amendments to existing regulations currently up for public consultation.

Back in 2007, the Planning Authority embarked on an effort to generate strategic noise maps as one of the reporting obligations of the Environmental Noise Directive. Noise maps record the relation between exposure to noise and annoyance factor (dose and effect) as a basis for drawing up action plans.

In 2011, a Noise Action Plan for Malta included a five-year project on how to preserve quiet areas. The following year a White Paper on neighbourhood noise prevention, abatement and control urged a preventive approach.

After a change in government, the draft bill on noise pollution appeared in 2014. Six years later, we are still waiting for that legislation, which promised the setting up of a call centre to receive and deal with noise complaints from the public.

Since its first meeting in 2016, the Commission for Noise Pollution has been silent as noise pollution chips away at public health.

Noise sends stress hormones soaring, interferes with our immune systems and increases the risk of stroke or heart attack. Even low-level noise may impact health, since the body still responds to noise during sleep, raising the heart rate.

Learning abilities are also affected. According to environmental psychologist Gary Evans at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology (US), chronic noise can have “a devastating effect on academic performance of children in noisy homes and schools”.

The impact on health rises with unpredictability and the lack of control over when sounds are heard, as with backing-up beepers on commercial vehicles.

A 1948 law demands: “No person shall drive or run the engine of a motor vehicle in such a manner as to cause undue noise.” Today devices are fitted (or removed) by attention-seeking owners of motor vehicles to make them even noisier.

If you cycle or walk alongside a busy road you may experience auto horns at 110 decibels, crossing the human pain threshold at a distance of just one metre.

Volume-adjustable buzzer alarms on travelling bridge cranes are sometimes set to the maximum, regardless of the effect on neighbours. Washing machines spin at 80 decibels on back balconies of rental apartments.

There are only two places in Malta identified from noise maps as being away from noise pollution. This is one of them: Comino.There are only two places in Malta identified from noise maps as being away from noise pollution. This is one of them: Comino.

The EU directive on environmental noise (2002) does not apply to noise from domestic activities, neighbours or military activities inside military areas.

QUESTION TIME: Silencing the noise

A separate legal instrument, Malta’s environmental construction site management regulations (2009), aims for construction management practices “that cause the least nuisance to neighbours”. However, the law merely qualifies noise as a nuisance, without any reference to decibels, which makes it difficult to enforce.

The Transport Master Plan 2025 claims that noise at the Freeport is monitored but admits improvements are needed in order to limit environmental impacts.

Tourists staying at a three-star hotel in Birżebbuġa have complained of the “perpetual” noise of the port just across the bay. Adding to their discomfort, “Bingo every night is a pain but it’s not that bad if you keep the balcony door shut.”

Strategies such as keeping the door or window shut run along the lines of “mitigation”. Not everyone can afford air conditioning or double glazing, but we see barriers to mitigate noise in road design.

At the Euronoise 2018 conference in Crete earlier this month, an acoustic expert recommended that noise mitigation plans be based on health indicator targets of the EU directive “without simply referring to zoning limits which unfortunately do not always take into account the disturbance of people by noise”.

For example, Birżebbuġa is not considered to have a large enough population to warrant a place on the strategic noise maps on which action plans are based.

To draw up noise maps, the relation between exposure to noise and annoyance factor (dose and effect) is recorded.

As the European Environment Agency guide on noise exposure and potential health effects describes it: Annoyance is “an emotional state connected to feelings of discomfort, anger, depression and helplessness” which can be measured by an ISO standard.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified noise from road traffic alone as the second worst environmental stressor affecting human health in Europe, preceded only by air pollution. 

An assessment of the health impact in Malta of road noise in a selected area, submitted to the EEA last year, revealed that around 18,000 people described noise from road transport as a nuisance. Half that number again were “seriously annoyed” by it. Another 4,000 were recorded as “highly sleep disturbed”.

Repeated disturbed sleep is a health risk. Even if you are not woken up by a sound, exposure to it while you are asleep can affect your heart and breathing rate.

Car stereos still blare at all hours, and it is difficult to find a lido or café without pounding music, even at 10am.

The Noise Abatement Society of Malta, praised for its grasp of a highly complex and technical subject, has so far been unable to mobilise viable mass resistance in the face of confusion around a fragmented legal framework.

Legislation passed in 2015 tiptoed around the contentious festa season by limiting the placement on the market of category F4 fireworks “for professional use” and medium-high safety risk, providing that the “noise level is not harmful to human health”. The law avoids any reference to measuring petard decibel levels.

It also ignores that noises lower than the level at which hearing may be damaged can be harmful to health.

There is a labyrinth of noise legislation out there, reverberating in an echo chamber of officialdom as we drown in a sea of sound.

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