Where is the worlds noisiest city?

The ignored pollutant can cause depression, stress, diabetes and heart attacks. What are cities doing to curb excess noise?

The constant roar of traffic, incessant construction noise, piercing sirens, honking horns, shrieking loudspeakers noise in cities is clearly a nuisance.

But its also a danger. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described noise pollution as an underestimated threat that can cause hearing loss, cardiovascular problems, cognitive impairment, stress and depression. Some experts go further: they believe exposure to environmental noise could be slowly killing us.

Noise pollution causes hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, strokes and death, says Dr Daniel Fink, chairman of the Quiet Coalition, a community of health and legal professionals concerned with the adverse impacts of environmental noise.

Noise pollution is often cited as one of the main factors in the reduced quality of life in large, 24-hour cities like New York (where more than 200,000 noise complaints were recorded in 2016). It causes stress, which has its own adverse effects on health.

While the impact of noise on mental health has not been studied extensively, research has shown that strong noise annoyance is associated with a twofold higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general population.

A recent study by experts at the American College of Cardiology linked noise pollution to increased cardiovascular problems (high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, coronary heart disease) through the bodys stress mediated response resulting in the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn damages blood vessels.

At a conference on noise organised by the European commission in April 2017, noise was regarded as the silent killer, with potentially severe consequences for our physical and mental health. And yet its impacts remain unreported and underestimated.

Worst offenders

Dr Eoin King, assistant professor of acoustics and author of the book Environmental Noise Pollution, calls noise the ignored pollutant. Environmental noise still continues to be poorly understood by practitioners, policymakers and the general public, he says.

Most worrying, says King, is the impact on children. Studies considering the effect that noise may have on children have found that tasks such as reading, attention span, problem-solving and memory appear to be most affected by exposure to noise.

The issue is compounded by debate over how much noise it is safe to be exposed to. In its Make Listening Safe guide, WHO states that 85 decibels is considered the highest safe exposure level, up to a maximum of eight hours. However, others Fink among them argue this is still too loud.

A car measures 70 decibels, a jackhammer 100, and a plane taking off 120, according to the WHO. Though there is no set threshold to establish risk, we do know that anything above 60 decibels can increase risk for heart disease, Dr Thomas Mnzel, from the Mainz University Medical Centre, has said.

A recent report by the BBC found that parts of the London Underground were loud enough to damage peoples hearing, with noise levels greater than 105 decibels on many lines. The report stated that some were so loud they would require hearing protection if they were workplaces.

Guangzhou
Guangzhou has been ranked as having the worse levels of noise pollution in the world Photograph: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Concerned about increased risk of hearing loss in cities, last year Mimi Hearing Technologies created a World Hearing Index to draw attention to the issue. With the results of hearing tests of 200,000 of their users worldwide and data on noise pollution from WHO and Sintef, a Norwegian research organisation, the index plotted levels of noise pollution and hearing loss in 50 cities.

The study found that, on average, a person living in the loudest cities has hearing loss equivalent to that of someone 10-20 years older. Overall the results showed a 64% correlation between hearing loss and noise pollution.

Guangzhou, China, ranked as having the worse levels of noise pollution in the world, followed by Cairo, Paris, Beijing and Delhi. Of the 50 cities, Zurich was found to have the least noise pollution.

Participants in Delhi recorded the highest average hearing loss equivalent to someone 19.34 years older than them. Vienna had the lowest hearing loss but still, on average, that of someone 10.59 years older.

We were able to collect quite a unique hearing data warehouse on hearing abilities across countries and continents, says Henrik Matthies, managing director of Mimi Hearing Technologies. There is an obvious known correlation between being exposed to noise and decreased hearing ability.

However, mapping this correlation to cities helped us to get the message out, sparking a debate about noise pollution and hearing in megacities like Hong Kong and Delhi.

But what can be done about it?

Political will

The EU are probably the world leaders at setting out a process to tackle noise pollution, says King. In 2002, it issued an environmental noise directive that requires member states to map noise exposure in urban areas holding upwards of 100,000 people, to develop noise abatement action plans in these areas and to preserve quiet areas.

Action plans usually incorporate a variety of measures such as traffic management strategies, promoting light rail systems and electric buses, reduced speed limits, introducing noise barriers and improved planning processes.

But good intentions only go so far. The problem is that there is no real enforcement associated with these action plans, says King. Until there is more of a political will to drive planning decision related to noise, I dont think much will change.

With road traffic by far the largest source of noise pollution in Europe, affecting an estimated 100 million Europeans, concepts like Pariss car-free day could have an impact. For one day every month in the French capital, 30% of the city becomes off limits to vehicles. The project has seen sound levels in the city centre drop by half.

The most effective way to control noise is at the source. If we could make planes, trains and cars quieter we would solve a lot of our problems, says King. If all vehicles in a city street were electric, noise would be significantly reduced.

Increasingly citizens can also do their bit to monitor noise pollution in cities by transforming their smartphones into sound level meters.

The NoiseTube app, developed by researchers at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, enables users to record where and at what times decibel levels are highest to produce a detailed noise map of the city. Councils can use the data to target noise pollution more effectively, using sound absorbent materials such as foam and fibreglass precisely where they are needed most.

King says there are many such projects looking to harness the potential of big data in the fight against noise for example, noise complaint data, or social media chatter related to noise, to better assess public sentiments towards soundscapes. There is a lot going on which I suppose gives us some hope.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/08/where-world-noisiest-city

Blue-sky thinking: how China’s crackdown on pollution is paying off

Clear skies above Beijing again but some fear the problem is just being pushed elsewhere

The photographs on display at Wu Dis Beijing studio imagine China and Beijing at their dystopian worst.

Naked, expectant mothers stare out from the walls, their bellies exposed but their faces hidden behind green gas masks.

Worshippers prostrate themselves around the Ming dynasty Temple of Heaven, desperately petitioning the smog-choked skies for a breath of fresh air.

But while the interior of Wus atelier offers a desolate panorama of Chinas pollution crisis, outside, a different, brighter side to the country is, for once, on show.

Beijings skies, so often noxious and smoggy, are a perfect and perplexing cerulean blue.

Its 26 today, said Wu, a visual artist and documentary photographer, checking his smartphones pollution app to confirm the uncommonly low levels of PM2.5, an airborne particulate linked to lung cancer, asthma and heart disease.

In the past, we made money first and could only talk about the environment later. But its clear the government has changed its mind, he said. We can see everything is starting to move in the right direction.

During the creation of the nightmarish airpocalypses portrayed in Wus artwork, pollution levels might have been 20 or even 30 times higher. Beijing was like a giant airport smoking room that day. It was an epic haze, he recalled, pointing to an image staged in October 2013 in which a girl appears to inhale oxygen through a tube connected to two heart-shaped balloons.

Times, though, appear to be changing.

Wu
Wu says he became an artist after he saw foreign athletes wearing facemasks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Traditionally, winter is Beijings smoggiest season, as coal burning ramps up to keep millions of residents warm. But the skies over Chinas capital have been almost inconceivably clear of late, thanks partly to a government crackdown on the use of the fossil fuel.

Beijing enjoyed a record 226 days of good air quality last year and endured 23 heavily polluted days, compared with 58 in 2013, state media announced last month. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, greeted the recovery with the incredulous headline: How did Beijing become one of Chinas top cities for air quality?

Hu Xijin, the editor of the party-controlled Global Times, tweeted alongside a photograph of Beijings azure-framed CCTV headquarters: Isnt it good to have a ruling party that can honour its promise?

Lauri Myllyvirta, a Greenpeace campaigner, said Chinas leaders could rightly claim credit for making Beijing blue again, temporarily at least, even if favourable weather conditions had played a major role in the exceptionally good spell.

Since last year, thousands of environmental inspectors have fanned out across the industrial belt around the capital as part of an aggressive clampdown on coal use. Heavily polluting vehicles, factories and construction sites have also been targeted. There is clear evidence the measures worked, said Myllyvirta, who said overall PM2.5 levels in Beijing had fallen by 40% from their peak in 2012-2013.

But he sounded a note of caution. Average PM2.5 levels in Beijing remained 65% above the national standard and more than five times World Health Organization guidelines last year. A recent bout of severe smog highlighted the fight ahead.

There are also fears that the crackdown around Beijing is forcing polluting industries to migrate south to regions such as the Yangtze river delta around Shanghai, where smog levels are rising. The war on pollution is far from over few people harbour illusions, Myllyvirta said. But there is also no reason for cynicism as theres clear evidence the measures worked.

Wu, 41, abandoned his job as an executive to become an environmentally engaged artist a decade ago, shocked into a career change by images of foreign athletes wearing facemasks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ten years on, and with the skies over his adoptive home starting to clear, he said he is glad his artwork and photographs, some of which have featured in Greenpeace anti-pollution campaigns, have played a role in increasing public awareness.

I want to produce work that can push society and the government to make positive changes …. [and] the most effective way to push the government to make changes is through public opinion, he said. It shows my work isnt a waste of time … It shows the power of art.

Wu worries, however, that change may have come too fast. He was among those left shivering when environmental inspectors began destroying coal-fired heaters late last year as part of a push to switch to natural gas or electric heating systems. Its only four degrees in here I can hardly work, he complained, touring his studio in a thick brown coat.

I agree with the government that we need lucid waters and lush mountains but the measures should be more gentle and more human. I can cope with the low temperature, but what about the elderly? What about children?

In one nearby area, primary school students reportedly suffered frostbite and were forced to study outdoors in the sunshine after their radiators stopped working.

Wu is also concerned about the environmental damage still being inflicted on less visible regions, where pollution crises have not received the same level of media attention as Beijings toxic skies. For one installation, he asked 12 volunteer disciples to recreate one of Leonardo da Vincis frescos, The Last Supper, in a derelict factory. The message is that because of pollution, mankinds last supper could come at any time because of pollution.

Overall, however, Wu believes China is on the right track. We should admit the government is trying to do the right thing and we need to recognise that it takes time to deal with environmental issues, he said.

If Chinas war on smog robbed him of his principal inspiration, he is unperturbed. Theres no lack of problems to inspire artists in China, he joked. Some western artists are jealous of that.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueying

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/22/blue-sky-thinking-how-chinas-crackdown-on-pollution-is-paying-off

Vehicles are now America’s biggest CO2 source but EPA is tearing up regulations

Transport overtook power generation for climate-warming emissions in 2017 but the Trump administration is reversing curbs on auto industry pollution

Some of the most common avatars of climate change hulking power stations and billowing smokestacks may need a slight update. For the first time in more than 40 years, the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the US isnt electricity production but transport cars, trucks, planes, trains and shipping.

Emissions data has placed transport as the new king of climate-warming pollution at a time when the Trump administration is reviewing or tearing up regulations that would set tougher emissions standards for car and truck companies. Republicans in Congress are also pushing new fuel economy rules they say will lower costs for American drivers but could also weaken emissions standards.

Opponents of the administration fret this agenda will imperil public health and hinder the effort to address climate change.

This Environmental Protection Agency doesnt seem to have met an air regulation that it likes, said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and a former EPA assistant administrator. Ive not seen any evidence that this administration knows anything about the auto industry, they just seem to be against anything the Obama administration did.

Vehicle emissions are going up, so clearly not enough is being done on that front. The Trump administration is halting further progress at a critical point when we really need to get a grip on this problem.

The 1970 Clean Air Act, signed by Richard Nixon, set standards for a cocktail of different pollutants emitted from new vehicles. New cars and trucks, which account for more than 80% of transport emissions, now have to meet fuel efficiency standards and display this information to consumers. This approach has helped cleanse previously smog-laden American cities and tamp down greenhouse gas emissions.

But in 2016, about 1.9bn tons of carbon dioxide emissions were emitted from transportation, up nearly 2% on the previous year, according to the Energy Information Administration. This increase means that transport has overtaken power generation as the most polluting sector in the country, and its likely to stay that way.

Cheap gasoline prices have led to a recent uptick in vehicle emissions, despite the fuel standards, at the same time that coal is being rapidly displaced by an abundance of cheap natural gas and the steady rise of renewable energy, driving a sharp decline in CO2 emissions from the power grid.

While coalminers have lost their jobs to technological advancement and environmental protesters have thrown their bodies in the path of oil pipelines, there has been far less to disrupt the basic emissions-emitting models of cars, trucks and planes.

Americans are buying larger cars and taking more flights domestic aviation emissions grew 10% between 2012 and 2016 and face little opposition in doing so.

The change in power generation has been very impressive over the past 10 to 15 years, said Brett Smith, assistant director of the Center for Automotive Research.

In the automotive sector, there isnt the same push. There are certainly Americans concerned about global warming but people are driving bigger and bigger vehicles each year. Its not a priority for them. The cost of fuel is pretty cheap and at the moment there isnt a better option out there than the internal combustion engine.

Transport accounts for about a quarter of all US planet-warming emissions but also poses a direct health threat to about 45 million Americans who live, work or attend school within 300ft of roads that are shrouded in high air pollution levels.

This pollution can stunt lung growth, trigger asthma attacks, exacerbate heart disease and cause developmental problems. The EPA estimates 17,000 schools across the US are located next to roads with heavy traffic, with children from low-income and minority groups disproportionately put at risk. California is the only state in the US to ban the construction of a school on the cheap land found beside major highways.

US cities havent emulated the likes of London and Stockholm by charging drivers a congestion fee to coax them on to public transport, cycling or walking; nor does the US feature the comparatively high rates of fuel tax seen in Europe. Frances move to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 would be politically unthinkable in the States.
But the air is much cleaner in American cities than it was in the 1970s, and a world away from the fug that now envelops Beijing and Delhi, in part due to vehicle emissions standards that have progressively been ratcheted up by the EPA.

That trajectory has been cast in doubt by the Trump presidency. In March, the EPA scrapped a deal struck between Barack Obamas administration and automakers that would require new cars to run 54.4 miles per gallon of fuel, up from 27.5 miles per gallon, by 2025.

The White House said the new rules had been shoved down the throats of car makers, with the main industry lobby group pointing out that consumers overwhelmingly prioritize safety, driving performance and value for money over fuel efficiency. There are more than 70 car models on sale that achieve 40 miles per gallon and they account for just 1% of total new vehicle sales.

Then, last month, the EPA cited regulatory overreach by the previous administration for its decision to waive clean truck standards that would have phased out glider vehicles that produce 55 times more diesel soot than new trucks. Scott Pruitt, administrator of the EPA, said his predecessors had attempted to bend the rule of law and expand the reach of the federal government in a way that threatened to put an entire industry of specialized truck manufacturers out of business.

These rollbacks from the executive branch have dovetailed with an effort by Republicans in the Senate and the House to revamp fuel efficiency rules by replacing state and federal requirements with a single standard. Environmental groups and previous administration officials fear this will lead to a further weakening of emissions standards.

Americas clean car standards have dramatically improved the fuel efficiency of vehicles, saving consumers billions of dollars and cutting pollution in the process, said Carol Browner, a former administrator of the EPA.

Instead of rolling back commonsense, successful and popular clean cars standards, we should focus on innovation and technology that will continue the auto industrys growth and the pollution reductions weve achieved since these standards were first established.

In the short term, this new approach risks a flashpoint between the federal government and California, which has a long-held waiver to enact vehicle pollution standards in excess of the national requirements. Twelve other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, follow Californias standards, an alliance that covers more than 130 million residents and about a third of the US vehicle market.

Nichols said she had been disturbed by signals coming from Pruitt and other EPA officials that she said show the federal government is looking to end Californias waiver.

We are very concerned because these standards are the bedrock of our whole climate change platform, she said. Scott Pruitt has made threatening noises about the Californian waiver, saying that we are trying to run the country. It feels like this is going to be the next shoe to drop. If it does, we will litigate and fight for our rights in the political arena with other states and consumer advocates.

With federal regulation set to be pared back, technological advances in electric and gas-powered cars, as well as consumer preferences, are likely to play an increasingly important role in whether vehicle emissions are forced back down.

A flurry of recent optimistic studies have forecast that, by 2040, as much as 90% of all cars in the US will be electric. But the current conundrum is that petroleum-fueled vehicles are cheaper and seen as more reliable than their electric counterparts by most new buyers. Affordable gasoline is competing with electric recharging stations that are considered too sparse by many drivers to risk running out of puff, no matter the benefit to the environment.

Its a challenging position for automotive companies because they are touting electric vehicles but ultimately they have to sell more cars, said Smith. Consumers in the US arent pushing for electric vehicles to the extent they are in Europe and unless we take a very different approach as a country, that doesnt look like it will change soon.

You will need to see a major change in battery technology to make it viable. People are becoming more aware and concerned about global warming, but we arent there yet. And when you look at the vehicles being put out by the major car companies, you could argue its not an issue for them, either.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/01/vehicles-climate-change-emissions-trump-administration

US people of color still more likely to be exposed to pollution than white people

New federal government-funded study finds exposure to a key air pollutant is significantly influenced by race, far more than by income, age or education

People of color are still far more likely to suffer from harmful air pollution than white people across the US and this disparity has barely improved in recent years, despite overall improvements in air quality, a new federal government-funded study has found.

Exposure to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, a key transportation-related pollutant, is significantly influenced by race, far more than by income, age or education, the paper found.

While the racial imbalance in pollution impacts has long been noted by researchers and environmental justice campaigners, the study found that progress in addressing it has been sluggish.

The report comes as the Trump administration has outlined plans to dismantle the EPAs office of environmental justice, which advocates for communities of color.

What surprised us is that race matters more than income when it comes to who is breathing in NO2, said Julian Marshall, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior author of the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives on Thursday.

I just stared at these findings and thought: What is going on? You would think places near highways would cost less. But its race that is driving this, not income. Urban planners tell us that cities are still really segregated people live close to people who look like them. We are seeing the outcome of that.

In
In columns A and B, red identifies locations where NO2 concentrations were higher for nonwhite people than white people; blue indicates that NO2 concentrations were higher for white than nonwhite people; and white means they were equal. In column C, red indicates that the absolute difference inNO2 concentration between nonwhites and whites increased over time; blue indicates that difference decreased over time; and white indicates no change. Photograph: Handout

The study, funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, found that overall exposure to NO2 among all Americans dropped between 2000 and 2010. But black and Hispanic people experienced 37% higher exposures to the pollutant than white people in 2010 only a slight decrease from the 40% gap in 2000.

In some parts of the country, the situation has actually become worse. In 2000, concentrations of NO2 in neighborhoods with the smallest proportions of white people were 2.5 times higher than in areas that are overwhelmingly white. In 2010, this discrepancy increased to 2.7 times higher. The gap between white and nonwhite people is starkest in the midwest and California.

NO2 is a nationally regulated pollutant that is emitted through the burning of fuel by cars, trucks and power plants. The pollution can make the air hazy and trigger a range of health problems, such as coughing, wheezing and infections, particularly in those with respiratory issues such as asthma.

According to the EPA, annual concentrations of NO2 have dropped across the US by 56% since 1990. But this overall improvement hasnt wiped out the disproportionate impact suffered by black and Hispanic people, who have historically been housed nearer to major roads, industrial plants and other sources of pollutants than whites.

The University of Washington study estimated that if people of color breathed in the same level of NO2 as white people, about 5,000 premature deaths from heart disease would have been avoided in 2010.

Everyone benefited from clean air regulations and less pollution; thats the good news, said Lara Clark, lead author and UW civil and environmental engineering doctoral student.

But the fact that there is a pervasive gap in exposure to NO2 by race and that the relative gap was more or less preserved over a decade is the bad news.

Previous research has found that the very worst polluting sites are situated next to neighborhoods with high minority populations. The EPA has typically been reluctant to use the Civil Rights Act to prosecute polluters and help remedy this situation.

We have policies in place to reduce pollution in general but we dont have policies in place on environmental justice, said Marshall. We arent addressing the disparities in health risks. Its important that this is recognized. We cant just ignore it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/14/us-people-of-color-still-more-likely-to-be-exposed-to-pollution-than-white-people

Air pollution kills more people in the UK than in Sweden, US and Mexico

WHO figures show people in Britain are more likely to die from dirty air than those living in some other comparable countries

People in the UK are 64 times as likely to die of air pollution as those in Sweden and twice as likely as those in the US, figures from the World Health Organisation reveal.

Britain, which has a mortality rate for air pollution of 25.7 for every 100,000 people, was also beaten by Brazil and Mexico and it trailed far behind Sweden, the cleanest nation in the EU, with a rate of 0.4.

The US rate was 12.1 for every 100,000, Brazils was 15.8 and Mexicos was 23.5, while Argentina was at 24.6.

The figures are revealed in the WHO World Health Statistics 2017 report, published on Wednesday, which says substantially reducing the number of deaths globally from air pollution is a key target.

The report reveals outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 3 million deaths worldwide, most of these in low- and middle-income countries.

Wealthy European nations had high levels of air pollution from fine particulate matter. The UK had an average of 12.4 micrograms of fine particulate pollutants (PM 2.5) for each cubic metre of air, which includes pollution from traffic, industry, oil and wood burning and power plants in urban areas. This is higher than the pollutant levels of 5.9 in Sweden, 9.9 in Spain and 12.6 in France. Germany had higher levels of particulate pollution than the UK at 14.4 and Polands was 25.4.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said the report confirmed that deaths from air pollution were higher in the UK than many other comparable countries.

She said: It is deeply tragic that around 3 million lives are cut short worldwide because the air we breathe is dirty and polluted. In the UK, air pollution is a public health crisis hitting our most vulnerable the hardest our children, people with a lung condition and the elderly.

Yet, we are in the fortunate position of having the technology and resources to fix this problem. Its time to use what we have to sort this problem out as a matter of urgency and clean up our filthy, poisonous air. The next government needs to bring in a new Clean Air Act to protect the nations lung health.

The worst countries for toxic air included India, where 133.7 deaths for every 100,000 people are attributed to air pollution, and Myanmar, where the rate was 230.6 deaths.

WHO said: Outdoor air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in developed and developing countries alike.

Some 72% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 14% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections, and 14% of deaths were due to lung cancer.

The World Health Organisation said it was up to national and international policymakers to tackle the toxic air crisis

Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand action by cities, as well as national and international policymakers in sectors like transport, energy, waste management, buildings and agriculture, the WHO said recently.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/17/air-pollution-kills-more-people-in-the-uk-than-in-sweden-us-and-mexico