Screaming for Quiet Germans Crank Up Anti-Noise Protests
Part 2: Assaulted by Noise
At present, such conclusions are of little practical value to people living in noisy areas. Erich Zielke, for example, has been living with aircraft noise for decades. His house is in Flörsheim, a town in Hesse just a few kilometers from one of the world's biggest airports.
In the past, the 71-year-old retiree says, planes taking off from Frankfurt Airport flew close to Flörsheim but not directly above it, and that was loud enough already. But since Oct. 21, 2011, when the new runway was opened, Zielke's house has been directly along the approach path -- where the aircraft, with their landing gear extended, roar above roofs at an altitude of about 270 meters (885 feet). "It's murder," says Zielke.
When the wind is coming from the east, Zielke often hears the noise from a landing plane for two or three minutes inside his house. One doesn't have to read the many medical reports and doctors' letters the retiree has collected to notice that the noise isn't good for his health. He speaks quickly as he talks about his tinnitus, hearing problems, hypertension, chest pressure and the feeling that his heart often seems to skip a beat and sometimes even stop for a moment.
Zielke has been taking strong medications since he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder. He seems desperate and hardly knows what to do anymore. In May, he filed a complaint against the CEO of Fraport, the company that operates Frankfurt Airport -- for assault.
But how is Zielke supposed to prove that the noise is responsible for his conditions? After all, people living in very quiet areas also have heart trouble. And besides, say airport officials, they obtained all the necessary permits for the expansion and operation of the runway, received the approval of the highest courts and do not exceed legal noise limits. In other words, they point out, everything is just fine.
Improperly Calculating Exposure
"Oh, the noise limits," groans Rainer Guski, an environmental psychologist at Ruhr University Bochum. "They're political and not medical values, negotiated by interest groups." And the lobby of those responsible for the noise is bigger and more powerful than most others. The transportation sector includes the airline, auto and logistics industries. Together, they provide millions of jobs and billions of euros in tax revenues.
For the most part, the laws are written from the standpoint of those who produce the noise. When Deutsche Bahn plans a new route, as it is currently doing in Frankfurt's southern Niederrad district, it has to ensure that it remains within the limits stipulated for the project. The fact that local residents already suffer from noise coming from one of the two main approach paths to Frankfurt Airport as well as a busy takeoff route, and that the A5 autobahn, now expanded to eight lanes, isn't far away, doesn't play a role in the approval process.
"They don't take the overall burden on local residents into account. Instead, they address each individual noise source on its own," Guski complains. "This is a huge problem for those people exposed to the combined noise from many sources."
Many experts also believe that standardized noise calculation methods are not well suited to measuring the burden on residents. The decibel levels used, known as "continuous sound levels," don't reflect real peak levels, but instead are average values obtained through complicated calculations. Arithmetically, a continuous whooshing noise from a faraway autobahn can generate the same sound level as everyday life in the central Rhine Valley, with its high peak values and intermittent pauses.
But it is precisely these peak values, such as when a train passes by, that wake up local residents and, according to the Mainz study results, are responsible for dangerous stress on the cardiovascular system.
Experts complain that the official decibel values reveal very little about the nature of the noise. In other words, not all noise is the same. The threatening, high-pitched roar of approaching aircraft, for example, triggers flight instincts and generally causes a higher increase in blood pressure than comparably loud noises from cars, Guski says. "The subconscious evaluation of the noise as a potential threat certainly plays a role, as well," he adds.
All things considered, the current laws and regulations on noise mitigation are "incapable of effectively protecting the population," the German Medical Association concluded in a 2012 resolution. The World Health Organization also believes that the German threshold values are much too high. As long ago as 1999, the WHO recommended that traffic in residential areas not be allowed to produce noise at levels higher than 45 decibels, and that no more than 30 decibels should penetrate into houses and apartments.
But even the UBA believes that such strict values are unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the agency wants to achieve a reduction in noise levels with such measures as extending bans on nighttime flying, speed restrictions, nighttime transit bans for trucks, better noise mitigation equipment on rails and roads, and investment in quieter freight cars.
Residents living near railroad tracks, like Sandra Pohl, as well as aircraft noise opponents from the Frankfurt area see it as a positive sign that even Federal Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), occasionally criticizes high noise-pollution levels and says that they are intolerable for local residents.
Still, Ramsauer isn't exactly viewed as a likely champion of stricter limits and other measures that could impede transportation. In the case of the airport in the Austrian city of Salzburg, however, Ramsauer personally campaigned to "noticeably" reduce noise pollution for the nearby German population -- even though Salzburg Airport isn't nearly as busy as airports in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Berlin.
The critical difference, of course, is that one of the approach paths into Salzburg passes right over Ramsauer's electoral district.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Germans Crank Up Anti-Noise Protests
- Part 2: Assaulted by Noise