Growing up in a village not too far from the middle of nowhere I always used to think of noise pollution as pretty much the most pathetic form of pollution going.
In fact, I wasn't even sure if it was deserving of the pollution tag. After all, noise is temporary, it's immaterial. Sure it can be annoying, but no ice cap ever melted because of too much noise, no trees wilted from acid noise, there are no greenhouse gas noises, in short, no body died from too much noise.
Or did they?
According to a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report high noise levels (and they regard as dangerous many of the noises you'd hear in an average day) can lead to increased stress and risk of heart attacks. It even suggests that over 3,000 deaths in the UK each year are the result of exposure to chronic noise.
I no longer need convincing as to the accuracy of this report (if anything I'm astounded it took them so long) because for the past three years I have lived in a flat overlooking one of London's main arterial roads - four lanes and two bus lanes of twenty four hour, seven days a week noise.
It's not too bad in the winter when the double glazing keeps everything down to a dull hum, but in the summer we are left with the choice of roasting alive or opening up a window and letting in the noise (and traffic fumes). Suffice to say, lying awake a few nights ago listening to the faulty burglar alarm that the manager of the Clinton Cards across the road refuses to fix I was left wondering if the longer commute that would come with living in the suburbs would so bad after all.
Like millions of people living in similar circumstances I am painfully aware of how much of a problem noise pollution poses and yet despite the stress and the quite literal heart ache it causes I'd hazard that many people still refuse to see what all the fuss is about.
How many businesses I wonder include a strategy for tackling noise pollution in their environmental plans? If they do, where does it rate? My guess is pretty near the bottom. If noise pollution is ever considered at a corporate level it is likely to be seen as an issue for HR, a box to tick to keep the dreaded 'elf and safety officer happy.
But there are compelling business reasons for addressing the problem; for legislators, for firms with offices on busy roads or under flight paths, and for the car manufacturers and airlines who are responsible for so much of the noise we have to endure.
The primary reason for at least investigating reducing noise levels at work is that excessive noise is a sizeable drain on productivity and contributor to workplace stress. Whether it is a noisy air conditioner or traffic noise from outside it is bound to be annoying your staff, even if they don't fully realise it.
In an age when good workplace conditions are so highly valued steps to cut noise levels are bound to be welcomed by employees, will certainly lead to increased productivity, and could lead to improved staff retention rates. I doubt you'll ever be ranked near the top of one of those best places to work league tables if your company has an issue with noise.
The second reason for declaring a full blown war on noise is that the bulk of noise pollution is inextricably linked to more conventional forms of pollution. Most notably cars and aircraft are huge sources of both carbon and noise emissions so policies to limit transport-related carbon emissions, such as increased investment in public transport, limits on airport expansion, and incentives for electric cars, would have the additional benefit of cutting noise pollution.
For businesses the problem of carbon emissions and noise pollution are also tightly linked on the grounds that if the noise can get into your building the heat (or in the summer the cold air) can also get out. Passivhaus buildings constructed to the highest environmental standards typically make use of large but tripled-glazed windows that allow the sun to heat the building and then keep the heat in, but as a convenient by-product triple-glazing also keeps the noise out. Such windows are naturally more expensive than conventional alternatives, but they should bring down heating and air-con costs, cut noise levels and more than pay for themselves over their lifetime.
If keeping staff happy and limiting carbon emissions are not big enough drivers for incorporating attempts to limit noise pollution into your business' environmental strategy there is also one other reason that could well emerge in the coming years for those businesses that have the most serious noise problems.
It is a safe bet that that right now somewhere in the world there is a lawyer poring over the new WHO report on the health risks of excessive noise and seeing nothing but dollar signs. If there is medical evidence that noise can contribute directly to death or ill-health then it is highly plausible that you could bring a case against a company that failed to adequately protect an employee or citizen from such noise.
There are of course already laws and employment contracts that deal with exposure to excessive noise but they are extremely poorly-policed making civil litigation the more likely means by which a business could be punished for a failure to have a clear and adequate policy on noise pollution.
For example, it is hard to imagine that a group of stressed-out local Heathrow residents armed with the UN report's findings couldn't construct a pretty strong case against the airport's planned expansion because of its detrimental effect on their health. They might not win, in fact they almost certainly wouldn't, but they could cause untold brand damage.
In truth litigation against firms that generate or fail to protect employees from excessive noise is likely to remain extremely rare, but as more evidence of its damaging medical effects emerge the risk of legal action against businesses that don't at least have a demonstrable strategy for tackling noise pollution only increases - just something that might be worth thinking about next time you find yourself lying awake at night.
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