“Disturbing new facts about noise”
By Anne Zammit
Noise pollution is hardly an issue that can be described as unheard of in Malta. The summer months bring loud complaints from residents suffering a barrage of festa petards, which can go on week after week depending on the locality.
Add to that the habit some drivers adopt of hooting at every street corner instead of slowing down to honour right of way for approaching vehicles, as street signage indicates. The onslaught of loud music at many public events, the sound of hunters’ guns blasting away early mornings and late night car-racing on roads such as the Mosta – Mgarr stretch go unchallenged.
The list grows with street vendors, notably the gas truck or the bread man, who regularly blast their air-horns, which are illegal;[i] to tell the world they have arrived. Then there are the infamous neighbours who love to party on into the night, often matched by the reluctance of the police to concern themselves over the lost sleep of long-suffering residents.
It is a problem, which features high on our list of environmental pressures. Unlike other forms of pollution, samples cannot be taken for investigation in a laboratory. Making noise, which disturbs or disrupts the lives of others, does not carry the same weight as other forms of pollution. Polluting the air, soil, water is an environmental crime yet noise pollution[ii] with all its ill effects is legally still a mere contravention.
“This is the first thing we have to address” according to Dr Simone Borg who spoke on local laws and noise management at a forum held last month by the Noise Abatement Society of Malta (NASoM).
Head of the University’s department of environmental law, Dr Borg said that the present law is very vague although narrowing it to decibel measurements could present difficulties. Even as things lie, there is often enough evidence to back a case for civil damages. Magistrates may not feel the need to refer to decibel tables if it is plain that people are unable to sleep at night because of noise.
Lack of coherence between noise regulators – Transport Malta, Building Regulations Office, Occupational Health and Safety Authority, Trading License Unit, Malta Environment and Planning Authority and the Police – and the many ministries involved could be solved by creating a framework that establish a network to avoid loopholes and conflicts in law between the many entities involved.
The framework intended to control & prevent neighbourhood noise was published in December 2012, after two years of extensive discussion with the stakeholders involved in the various sectors, the representative of the opposition party in government and the public.
John Fenech, representing the society underlines the importance of understanding that noise is a hazard to health and the wellbeing.
Sleep disturbance is a big problem since sleep is very important for health. An official from public health, Dr J P Cauchi, spoke on the increasing magnitude and severity of noise pollution. Noise below 70 decibels dB (A) is not harmful to the auditory system. Nevertheless, during the night noise levels of 45 dB (A) measured one meter from the house façade – including that of light traffic or noise from other activity– can result in sleep without rest as the heart rate and blood pressure are higher than normal. It is only during restful sleep that healing can take place.
A Danish study in 2011 found that for every ten decibels increase in noise the risk of stroke goes up by fourteen percent. A more recent study in October carried out at Heathrow Airport appears to back up these findings. People in the work place exposed to excessive noise become irritable and less motivated in their jobs. After air pollution, traffic noise is the second largest problem affecting health in the European Union.
Therefore, after giving the dust a chance to settle, the noise & prevention control framework regulations were proposed once again to the new administration. However, during the last month forum the society chairman John Fenech expressed disappointment at reluctance on the government’s part to adopt an existing framework without having another look at it.
The framework contemplates the setting up of a call centre. This is to facilitate complaints investigation in real-time and a complaints tracing system thus establishing accountability – an expensive solution but one that would create jobs if set properly & run in a professional manner, otherwise it would be another project to let off steam.
Minister Leo Brincat referred to this and other issues which had been caught up in the transitory time ahead of merging Malta Resources Authority with the environment authority, which will soon no longer fall under Mepa.
Ruling out the Singapore model, where different decibel levels were applied in different zones for schools, hospitals, residences etc… he pledged a new direction for enforcement especially for repeat offenders.
“If we legislate we intend to address the gaps”, he added, noting that people were fed up of having laws on paper, which are not so easily implemented.
Also mentioned were the noise created by supermarkets and similar establishments after hours. More noise specialists and consultants were needed. Minister Brincat referred to scrap yards as a weakness in the system, criticizing the relationship between some operators with Mepa as “too cosy for my liking.”
Chairman of the Building Industry Consultative Council, Perit Charles Buhagiar observed that a guidance document on measures to be taken at the building stage to reduce the transmission of sound are “not good enough” and legislation is needed. The council is working with the building regulations office to control noise in buildings and on building sites.
Another concern was the problem of noisy neighbours in the vicinity, which could reduce property values. The Noise Abatement Society’s website ( www.nasomalta.org) provides a forum for complaints, which will be passed on to the relevant authorities. When making a report at the police station over a noise disturbance, complainants should remain objective, supply clear information and most importantly check that they are given the file number of their complaint so they can follow it up and see what steps were taken
[i] S.L.65.11 - Vehicles Regulations
96. (1) Every person driving a motor vehicle shall, where necessary, give warning of his approach by sounding the horn or other device.
(2) No person shall make, cause or permit to be made any unnecessary noise with the motor vehicle horn or with any other warning device.
(3) Any police officer or local warden may prohibit the use of any horn or other warning device, which appears to be strident or otherwise objectionable. No pneumatic horn (other than an ordinary hand pressed bulb horn) and no motor driven horn shall be used on any motor vehicle.
116. No driver shall operate, or cause, or permit to be operated any radio, tape recorder, record player or similar apparatus on or in any motor vehicle in a way that it may hinder or is likely to hinder that driver from hearing properly or which may cause annoyance to passengers in the vehicle or other people in any inhabited place
[ii] ACT XX of 2001,- Environment Protection Act
''energy'' includes all types of radiation forming part of the electromagnetic energy spectrum, or resulting from a nuclear source, as well as all vibrations and noise;
''pollution'' means the direct or indirect introduction by man into the environment of substances, organism, genetic material or
energy that cause or are likely to cause hazard to human health, harm to living resources or to ecosystems, or damage to amenities,
or interfere with other legitimate uses of the environment;