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Noise and Nightlife: a Conflict of Interest or a Public Health Problem?

Goroka  Ajtm Bcn
Photo: Goroka / Barcelona City Council - The squares in the Gracia district of Barcelona have been identified by the BIT HÁBITAT Foundation (Barcelona City Council) as areas where noise-related problems are recurrent.

The ‘conflict of interest’ between leisure and a good night's rest can become a public health problem in cities like Barcelona.


[This post was co-written by Carlota Sáenz de Tejada, postdoctoral researcher at ISGlobal's Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, and Celia Santos, ISGlobal's science outreach technician].


At least one in five Europeans is regularly exposed to noise levels at night that could significantly damage their health. In many vibrant, touristy cities, such as Barcelona, nightlife has become the second most important source of noise after road traffic. And in some particular neighbourhoods, noise levels at night can be unbearable.

Both for those who voluntarily participate in these activities, and (especially) for the neighbours whose sleep is recurrently disturbed, this 'conflict of interest' between leisure and rest can become a public health problem.


Neighbours call for silence in a street in Mataró. Photo: Carlota Sáenz de Tejada.

Health impacts of nightlife: what we know (and what we don't)

Exposure to excessive noise (mainly from motorised traffic) has been linked to a wide range of both auditory and non-auditory health effects, with non-auditory health effects often being severe and widespread in the population. In Barcelona, for example, one study estimated that noise in the city causes as much or even more illness than air pollution.

The latest Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region of the World Health Organization (2018) introduced for the first time the health effects of recreation. However, these refer exclusively to the noise exposure of the individual voluntarily participating in leisure activities or exposed to certain sound equipments, while they do not refer to the exposure of residents in areas where leisure activities and premises accumulate.


Figure: Summary of the links between noise (mainly from traffic) and health. Based on WHO (2018) and EEA (2020).


With regard to nightlife, those who voluntarily expose themselves to high noise levels risk affecting their hearing (such as hearing loss or tinnitus) through direct damage to the auditory system, with a possible cumulative effect over the years.

In the case of people who live near bars, terraces, dance clubs, etc., the main problem often arises in relation to sleep disturbance, either because of difficulty or delay in starting to sleep, or because of interruptions or disturbances during the course of sleep. Human beings perceive, evaluate and react to environmental sounds during sleep. Studies show that even at levels as low as 33 dB, effects such as tachycardia, body movements or awakenings can occur. These reactions to noise during sleep will depend not only on the nature and characteristics of the noise itself, but also, to a large extent, on the individual's sleep phase and susceptibility to noise.

Generally speaking, however, sleep disturbance can have effects such as drowsiness and fatigue the next day; affect our levels of alertness, work performance and memory consolidation; or cause changes in our glucose metabolism and appetite regulation. In fact, several studies have linked living in areas exposed to night-time noise (again, mainly traffic noise) with increased use of sedatives and other sleep medications. If sleep is disturbed for a prolonged period of time, it can also lead to cardiovascular disease.


An animated street in Paris. Photo: Yannis Papanastasopoulos / Unsplash.


A qualitative study carried out in 2017 by the Barcelona Public Health Agency in Barcelona's Ciutat Vella district (an area particularly affected by nightlife noise) revealed feelings of irritability, nervousness, stress and a sense of despair among affected neighbours, as well as an increase in aggressiveness, anger, bad moods and violent behaviour towards people who make noise. This study also indicated that when noise stems from violent acts such as fights or arguments, it could have adverse psychological and emotional effects. These aspects and reactions linked to night-time noise have also been identified during the development of other projects led by ISGlobal, such as TÀNIA (a project on participation, technology and conviviality to reduce noise on Barcelona's terraces) and HABITAS-GRAN (Habitat and health for the elderly).

Despite the widely established importance of sleep for health, more quality scientific research is needed to describe the dose-response relationship between night-time recreational noise and potential health effects. Only then will it be possible to establish clear reference thresholds that, based on the best available scientific evidence, will help to define public policies and enforceable regulations. Unlike traffic noise, noise from nightlife is characterised by being much more discontinuous and concentrated on weekend nights, and can reach very high levels during some hours. As revealed by data from sound level meters installed in the busiest nightlife areas of Barcelona, this high intensity exposure can be masked by the annual average exposure indicators for all days of the week (such as Lden and Lnight) used by the European Environmental Noise Directive and the WHO, leading to an underestimation of the problem.

Inequality and urban design: some keys to the problem

Unlike noise from traffic, noise from nightlife accumulates in very high peaks at night, especially at weekends. Recent reports point to tourism, the accumulation of people in public space and their behaviour, the use of skateboards or skateboarders, or night-time cleaning brigades, as some of the main sources of noise in central urban areas (as in the case of the Ciutat Vella district in Barcelona). In addition to the accumulation of noisy activities at night, urban design factors can aggravate the problem, such as narrow streets and squares that act as "acoustic boxes", the lack of acoustic barriers such as trees and vegetation in general, or the poor quality of housing construction that does not allow for adequate and sufficient acoustic insulation.


Barcelona. Photo: Goroka / Barcelona City Council.


In this regard, it is not surprising to find that people with more resources are less likely to suffer noise-related health impacts, even when they live in noisier areas (such as in central areas of some cities). This is partly due to their greater ability to access quality housing, to protect themselves with sound insulation, and to have air-conditioning systems that allow them to enjoy thermal comfort on hot nights without having to open windows. In contrast, vulnerable and less well-resourced populations may experience more pronounced health impacts from similar exposures, in part because of their lower adaptive and protective capacity (among other factors). Indeed, in most European countries, the highest prevalence of chronic noise annoyance is found in single-parent households with dependent children.

In a context of climatic emergency and an increase in the number and intensity of heat waves and tropical nights, it is essential that people can sleep with their windows open to promote natural ventilation and thus reduce the indoor temperature, receive fresh air, and facilitate rest without relying on air conditioning systems (which in turn contribute to the generation of heat outside, energy consumption and the emission of greenhouse gases). In this sense, it is necessary to identify and implement effective measures to reduce exposure to night-time leisure noise in the most exposed and stressed areas. Although this may be complex in certain contexts and cultures, it is a necessary public health intervention.


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