The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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An epidemic in the making

Mark Said Sunday, 3 March 2024, 08:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

Silence is golden, it is said. Well, that might just as well be absolutely true for us Maltese, as finding a quiet, relaxing spot has become as rare or impossible as finding traces of gold in our rock. We have become the European Union’s noisiest country, with close to half of our population saying that they suffer from some form of noise pollution. We have long been notorious for our never-ending construction and traffic issues, but the matter does not stop there.

The Environmental Noise Directive (END) 2002/49/EC relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise sets a common approach to the management of noise in order to avoid, prevent, or reduce the harmful effects due to exposure to environmental noise. It is the main EU instrument to identify noise pollution levels and trigger the necessary action. The Directive applies to environmental noise to which humans are exposed, in particular built-up areas, in public parks or other quiet areas in an agglomeration, in quiet areas in open country, near schools, hospitals, and other noise-sensitive buildings and areas, and in areas affected by noise from designated major roads or aircraft transport sources as well as industrial sites. However, the Directive does not cover workplace noise, neighbourhood noise, construction noise, entertainment noise, noise nuisance, fireworks noise, consumer product noise, or noise transmission between dwellings. And it is here that we Maltese seem to abuse and make the most of the law to circumvent it.

Construction, whether commercial, residential, or infrastructure, is a legitimate and main noise source that is gaining more hours every day. Building permits are increasing by the thousands every year, as are registered new vehicles on our roads. Hospitality and leisure activities, too, substantially contribute to the ever-increasing and ear-shattering noise pollution on our islands. Who has not had to endure the rude awakening and deafening horn blowing of the gas cylinder distributor in the early hours of the morning while trying to manoeuvre through most of our narrow streets?

And what about civil activities that generate an unacceptable amount of annoying noise that can never be music to the ears? Local council activities, street celebrations (including street parties), and national celebrations and festivities all year round ensure that the amount of time that one can enjoy a little bit of deafening silence is reduced to a minimum. Last but not least, there is that awkward range of noises forthcoming from your neighbourhood or from your neighbour’s adjacent apartment. Petulant shouting because of some domestic squabble and loud music vibrating through your four walls late into the night or during rest periods add to the guarantee that your day will be as miserable as possible. To top it all off, then, for a whole period of around four consecutive months in summer, we have to tune up our fragile ears in order to withstand those war-like booms and bangs generated by plentiful tonnes of fireworks and pyrotechnics.

With this background, in 2019, the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) embarked on an updated Noise Action Plan (NAP) under the Environmental Noise Directive 2002/49/EC (END). That Plan was supposed to outline a long-term plan aiming to prevent and reduce environmental noise where necessary, particularly where exposure levels can induce harmful effects on human health, and preserve environmental noise quality where it is good.

Furthermore, it had to set out objectives for the monitoring and management of environmental noise in Malta and take a staged approach to assessing the existing levels of environmental noise from the different noise sources to identify potential locations for actions using a prioritisation exercise. Above all, it aimed to preserve relatively quiet areas in the agglomeration and in the open countryside through the identification and delineation of such areas.

I do not quite know at what stage that Plan has arrived, but, for sure, Malta needs comprehensive laws targeting noise pollution, and the problem needs to be tackled because of the negative health effects it can have. However, I fear that even with appropriate legislation in place, enforcing it will always remain a problem. The traditional definition of noise is "unwanted or disturbing sound" Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping or conversation or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.

The fact that you cannot see, taste, or smell it may help explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution, such as air pollution or water pollution. The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise. Though for some, the persistent and escalating sources of sound can often be considered an annoyance. This "annoyance" can have major consequences, primarily for one’s overall health. Studies have shown that there are direct links between noise and health. Problems related to noise include stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.

Unwanted sounds can have a range of mental health effects. The brain is always monitoring sounds for signs of danger, even during sleep. As a result, frequent or loud noises can trigger anxiety or stress. With continued exposure to noise pollution, a person’s sensitivity to stress increases. People living with noise pollution may feel irritable, on edge, frustrated, or angry. Feeling that they cannot control the amount of noise in their environment, its impact on their mental health intensifies.

While I applaud all efforts to incorporate authentic nature into our towns and villages, not acknowledging noise levels is a serious oversight. Many have become used to the sound of diggers over morning coffee. Our country’s collective racket is making all of us sick. Our hearts race and our breathing speeds increase. We must talk louder, our voices hitting higher and higher pitches, our faces contorting, trying to communicate and claim our place in the landscape. Hearing loss is threatening to become an epidemic.

 

Dr Mark Said is a lawyer

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