More than an annoyance, traffic noise is a matter of public health

· The Pulse

As city councillors consider a report on excess vehicle noise this week, it's worth noting that noise pollution is more than an annoyance; decades of research suggest it is a major public health problem.

A 2020 report from the European Environment Agency put noise second to only air pollution as a cause of premature death, largely due to noise annoyance, sleep disturbance, and ischemic heart disease.

"Some people maybe don't think of annoyance as a health hazard, but it certainly is, I think, and most of my colleagues agree," said Tor Oiamo, assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University.

"It interferes with well-being and induces stress, whether that's chronic or acute," Oiamo explained. "Sleep disturbance underlies a lot of other health outcomes. There's a lot of evidence for sort of downstream health outcomes, like diabetes. Ischemic heart disease is the one really significant cardiovascular health outcome that the WHO said there's strong evidence for based on a very rigorous review of hundreds of studies that have been done so far."

Because most Canadian cities are built up around car infrastructure, some degree of traffic noise is inescapable. But Coun. Michael Janz is hoping to see stiffer fines for the worst culprits, those who have illegally altered their vehicles to make them louder.

"These vehicles are already illegal. You cannot sell a vehicle that has a violating exhaust. But these people put on aftermarket modifications to be deliberately noisy," Janz said. "It's absolutely a menace to the health and well-being of the whole community."

Complaints about traffic noise to EPS increased from 770 in 2020 to 1,028 in 2021, according to a report to be presented to the community and public services committee on Aug. 8. Common complaints were not being able to sleep and increased stress levels. Janz said his noise petition has been the most popular of any on his website.

Tickets for excessive traffic noise currently range from $162 to $250 under the provincial Traffic Safety Act and Edmonton's Community Standards Bylaw. Janz would like to see those fines automatically bumped up to $5,000, with penalties of $10,000 or confiscation of the vehicle for repeat offenders.

"I think we need to really hit them in the pocketbooks," Janz said. "These people drive very expensive vehicles, and they're spending thousands of dollars to make them even more noisy. And the effect it has is one jerk on the road can wake up 10,000 people in the neighbourhood."

A chart outlining the health effects of noise exposure, leading to cardiovascular disease

Large-scale epidemiological studies suggest that "transportation noise is associated with adverse cardiovascular effects, in particular (ischemic heart disease)," says the World Health Organization's Night Noise Guidelines for Europe, issued in 2009.

Oiamo agreed that steep fines would be a strong deterrent, but said they should be given alongside some form of public education and awareness campaign so that people understand why they're being ticketed.

The downstream consequences of noise disturbances is less talked about in North America, but has become a focus of European public health strategy.

"There's strict regulation with the noise directives in place to guide and regulate it on the same level as air pollution," Oiamo said of the European region that falls under the WHO's umbrella. In Canada, existing noise regulations effectively download the responsibility onto municipalities, whereas air or water pollution are provincially or federally regulated.

Although legal frameworks like Canada's and the pervasive car culture in North America make systemic action on the issue of noise pollution slow on the continent, the actions Edmonton has taken so far stand out, Oiamo noted.

"Edmonton is seemingly one of the ... leading cities when it comes to caring about this issue. There's been monitoring and enforcement of the bylaw going on there for a long time, which is a lot more than can be said for other jurisdictions."

Edmonton's attempts to attenuate traffic noise have been forward-thinking, but not without setbacks. A 2018 pilot to monitor vehicle noise and display decibel levels to passing motorists was gamified by loud drivers revving their engines to try to get a high reading. The second phase of the pilot used sound monitoring technology to identify problem areas and deploy officers to monitor the locations and hand out tickets. Neither technology is currently in use in the city.

"We currently do not use noise monitoring technologies to assist our enforcement efforts, with the exception of equipment used for motorcycle testing when partnered up with Edmonton Police Service," said Chrystal Coleman, communications advisor with the City of Edmonton.

The WHO's guidelines for Europe state that nighttime noise levels above 45 decibels should be limited, targets that would be difficult if not impossible to hit in North America, Oiamo said.

"In Toronto, I've monitored hundreds and hundreds of locations all over the city over the last number of years, and the lowest measurement I got anywhere was 43 decibels."

Taking the loudest bikes, cars, and trucks off city streets wouldn't solve Edmonton's noise pollution problem, but they are some of the most disruptive and easy-to-legislate sources of noise. Janz asserted that people are "fed up and frustrated" by these types of excessive traffic noise in the city, and we shouldn't just accept it as an inevitable aspect of urban life.

"Cities are not noisy. You go to other cities in the world that have protections in place, and they're much, much quieter," Janz said.