From top: Dublin Airport; Protesters against the new North runway at Dublin Airport over noise issues last February
The Aircraft Noise (Dublin Airport) Regulation Bill – sponsored by Independents4Change TD Clare Daly – to deal with noise levels at Dublin Airport returns – following amendments in the Seanad – for debate in the Dáil.
Astrid Madsen writes:
Beyond hearing loss, noise is a pollutant that is linked to cardiovascular disease, sleep and cognitive impairments. And we don’t know how many people are at risk; the figure for Dublin alone is at least 20,000.
Noise is a stress inducer that triggers a fight-or-flight response in the body and if you live beside aircraft, road or rail, your body will process the harmful effects of noise even if you’re not conscious of it. The health risk is especially well documented during the sleep stages.
Says Owen Douglas, a professor who researches noise at UCD:
“The evidence suggests that children are among the most susceptible, leading to problems with reading, attention span, problem solving and memory. There is a clear physiological response. The safe decibel levels presented in the WHO report are beyond a reasonable doubt accurate.”
People living near airports should only be subject to a level of noise akin to a library environment (45dB) while those near roads can bear a bit more, the equivalent to the amount of noise your fridge might make (53dB).
That’s according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region published late last year.
This low threshold may sound surprising but there is a big difference between someone living near a source of noise and someone walking past. The difference is repeated exposure to mechanical sounds, aircraft being the worst.
The WHO considers noise “a disease burden that is second in magnitude only to that from air pollution” and is appraising the health impact of a wide range of noise emitters, from wind turbines to seemingly innocuous sources such as mobile devices.
The representative health body for over 190 countries estimates 50% of the EU population lives in areas where noise is considered to have adverse health impacts; in Ireland, Fingal County Council’s figure for the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) is at 1% because the data is incomplete.
The local authority, as part of its final Noise Action Plan, provided a list of how many people (20,300) in the GDA were affected by average noise levels at or above 55dB, based on 2016 data compiled by a UK acoustics consultancy paid for by the Dublin Airport Authority.The 2016 Census figure for the GDA is 1.9 million people.
The difference between Fingal’s figures showing how many people are affected by noise levels of 55dB or more, and the WHO strong recommendation of using 45dB as the cut-off is equivalent to a doubling of noise levels.
The decibel scale is logarithmic and on average, according to the US’s Federation Aviation Administration, a person perceives a change in sound level of +10 dB as a doubling of loudness.
Owen Douglas cautions that average values may not reflect the true extent of exposure with evidence suggesting that maximum values, such as an aircraft revving up at 6am, might be a better way of measuring sleep disturbance and resulting negative health outcomes.
However he also flags that the current noise methodology might be exaggerating how many people are affected by noise, which is partly why the research community is moving to a more accurate data collection system known as CNOSSOS.
The health impact of noise is well documented, which is why the public consultation document for Fingal County Council’s Noise Action Plan (NAP) published in September stated it would:
“consider the implications of any relevant [WHO] publication in terms of policy provision”.
The WHO guidelines were published in October and Fingal’s final NAP, published in December, discarded the recommendations on the basis that “National and/or EU led policy guidance is required”.
When Clare Daly managed to introduce the WHO guidelines into legislation that is currently going through the Dáil to appoint a noise regulator as required under EU legislation, the Aircraft Noise Dublin Airport Regulation Bill 2018, Minister for Transport Ross said: