A layperson’s guide to the WHO’s noise and health report

Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by John Stewart  

The new noise and health guidelines (pdf) published last week by the World Health Organisation could prove a turning point in the fight to persuade governments and industry to put in place more effective measures to tackle noise. The guidelines are not legally binding but, given the extent of the health problems associated with noise the report identified, it will be difficult for the authorities to dismiss them out of hand. Although the guidelines were published by the European office of the WHO and strictly apply only to Europe, WHO hopes and expects they will influence noise policy across the world. My summary of the guidelines can be found here (pdf).

The guidelines are tougher than those recommended by the WHO previously. The recommended limits are:

  • Road                    53Lden              45Lnight
  • Rail                      54Lden              44Lnight
  • Aircraft                 45Lden              40Lnight
  • Wind Turbines     45Lden       no recommendation*
  • Leisure                70 LAeq

* WHO felt that there was insufficient evidence to make a recommendation

The guidelines are stricter for air and wind turbine noise because WHO found that people get highly annoyed from these sources at lower levels than for road or rail noise. The benchmark used when recommending the safe thresholds was the level at which 10% of the population became annoyed by a particular noise source. For night noise a lower threshold was used on the basis that sleep disturbance created more serious health problems than annoyance. The night threshold was the level at which 3% of people were “highly sleep-disturbed.”

WHO stressed that, because, in its view, there is not yet enough research to make a recommendation about night noise from wind turbines, it does not mean that they are not causing problems. One of the report’s recommendations is that more wind turbine research is undertaken.

Wind farm and leisure were not covered in previous WHO reports. Leisure noise is harder to define than the other noise sources. WHO broadly defines it as recreational noise, including noise from personal audio devices. In light of existing evidence the WHO recommended that over the course of the year the noise from leisure sources should average out at no more than 70 decibels. It added one important caveat, though: a warning that very high levels of noise at a particular time–for example music at a rock concert–has the potential to damage hearing.

The WHO has made it very clear it does not want its report to sit on shelves gathering dust. It wants it to lead to action and has pointed the way in the report to solutions to reduce the number of people–currently running into hundreds of millions across the world–exposed to unhealthy levels of noise.

The World Health Organisation has done it job. It is over to us now–governments, industries, communities, campaign groups–to make sure we use it to create a quieter and healthier future for everybody.

John Stewart is the lead author of “Why Noise Matters,” published by Earthscan in 2011, and has worked and campaigned in the fields of noise and transport for over 35 years.

Comments (3)

  1. Ben

    Very good! This is timely, given the 2 months of 120-decibel construction going on in downtown Cambridge MA USA right now 🙂

    I’m puzzled by the statement in your summary: “It applies to all European countries (not just those within the European Union).” The WHO’s recommendation is (a) not legally binding anywhere so not tied to geography because of governments, and (b) an attempt to summarise studies on human biology, right? Your sentence implies that human biology is consistent throughout Europe but perhaps not beyond. Are you being a bit over-cautious?

    1. John Stewart

      Thanks for your comment Ben. You are right that the WHO’s recommendations are nor legally binding so could be taken up by any country. I suppose I was just relaying WHO’s own view of where their focus was when doing their work. I agree, too, that human biology is not consistent.

  2. kenneth phillips

    Are these levels inside or outside the home? What are the hours for night vs. day? Why is the number of flights not mentioned? All flights from FAA Nextgen are exceeding both of these levels indoors at 10 miles from the runway. And to compound it, they are flying the same exact route, so instead of having 1 or 2 of these every night, we are having 50 every night. It basically guarantees that you won’t sleep more than 5 hours a night!


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