Screaming for Quiet Germans Crank Up Anti-Noise Protests
Many Germans are growing fed up with all the noise pollution coming from planes, trains and automobiles. Despite numerous studies warning of associated health risks, politicians are merely giving lip service to the worries.
Her life unfolds between trains, says Sandra Pohl, during breaks in the train schedule. She is standing at the living-room window in her house, gazing down at the Rhine River, where cruise vessels are battling the current against a backdrop of vineyards and medieval castles.
It's a quietly idyllic scene.
But Pohl, 43, knows what's coming next. It starts as a faint whooshing noise and gradually grows louder until it's a deafening roar. Suddenly Pohl sees massive, dark freight cars as they clatter along the rails a few steps from her living-room window, causing the walls of the house to shake. "This is how it goes day after day," says Pohl, "around the clock."
For more than a century, railroad tracks have cut through the town of Lorchhausen, on the border between the two western German states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate. Well over 100 trains, many of them freight trains, rumble through the town every day on their journey through the Rhine Valley, between the cities of Koblenz and Wiesbaden. There are about 60 trains a night -- every night -- between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The Pohl family got used to having the trains practically in their front yard a long time ago. Sandra grew up in the house, and her grandfather was the local stationmaster. But today she can't stand the noise anymore, she says, noting that the number of freight trains traveling along the route is constantly rising.
Transportation experts expect that number to grow even more in about four years, when the Gotthard Base Tunnel in the Alps is scheduled for completion. It will provide a fast rail connection from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to the Mediterranean -- through the Rhine Valley.
This has prompted Pohl to follow the lead of many others in Germany who live near rail lines, airports, highways or heavily trafficked downtown streets: She has joined a citizens' initiative to protest the noise, which she fears will adversely affect her health and that of her two children in the long run.
The victims of railroad noise in the Rhine Valley have teamed up with victims of airport noise in the Frankfurt region, and they are now calling for joint demonstrations in Wiesbaden and Mainz, the respective state capitals of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate. For almost two years now, hundreds of local residents have gathered weekly in the departure hall of Frankfurt Airport, the country's busiest air hub, to protest the noise resulting from the airport's new runway. Citizens are also staging frequent protests against aircraft noise in Berlin, Cologne and Leipzig, as well as along the approach path to the Zurich Airport, in Switzerland.
Residents are no longer willing to accept such noise. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, for example, locals are fighting noise pollution from old tank-car trains on the route between Berlin and an oil refinery in the town of Schwedt. And citizens' initiatives from eastern Holstein in the north are protesting a planned railroad tunnel through the Fehmarn Belt, a strait in the Baltic Sea between Germany and Denmark, because it will spit out large numbers of freight trains that will then rumble through the villages of northern Germany.
Car noise is also triggering protests, for example, along the A1 autobahn in the northern Münsterland region, which is currently being expanded to six lanes, as well as along busy roads in cities across the country. Officials in Hamburg are considering a nighttime speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph) on arterial roads.
Their concerns are justified. "Noise is the most heavily underestimated environmental problem in Germany," says Jochen Flasbarth, president of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA). In a representative survey conducted by the agency in 2010, half of all respondents complained about road noise while one in three objected to aircraft noise. And residents' sensitivity to noise has only increased since then, says René Weinandy, a noise expert at the UBA.
Experts and doctors overwhelmingly agree that long-term exposure to noise can cause serious and even life-threatening illnesses. But they are still at odds over the questions of how much noise is harmful and what the consequences are. Some studies and scenarios make dire predictions. The UBA, for example, estimates that traffic noise triggers some 4,000 heart attacks in Germany each year. And the European Union calculates that the social costs of traffic noise resulting, for example, from additional health care expenditures reach about 40 billion a year.
Lawmakers are reacting with campaign promises. When Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), encountered protesting Rhine Valley residents during a campaign appearance in Koblenz in mid-September, she said vaguely: "We have to do something about this."
Residents plagued by aircraft noise in the Frankfurt region have also heard the state governor, Volker Bouffier (CDU), frequently say that things would have to "quiet down" at the airport. But the steps announced so far haven't accomplished much. On the contrary, a new takeoff flight path in the southwestern part of the airport, which was built partly in response to the problem of noise pollution, was cancelled by the state's highest administrative court.
In their campaign platforms for the recent national election, all parties with seats in the parliament, the Bundestag, called for less noise. But in most cases they merely followed up this demand with non-specific announcements and promises that things would improve at some point in the distant future.
How Noise Affects Health
But the noisy present is easily experienced during a visit to the Rhine Valley. According to official readings, the trains generate noise levels of up to 110 decibels. This corresponds to the amount of noise made by a chainsaw being operated at full power heard from a distance of one meter (3.3 feet). The soundproofing windows Sandra Pohl had installed in her house can do little to offset such high noise levels. "I often don't sleep well, wake up several times every night and then feel exhausted when I go to work," she says.
Living with this much noise isn't just annoying; as numerous scientific studies have shown, it's also very unhealthy. For example, it increases the risk of:
Heart attacks: According to a University of Bern study, for which data from 4.6 million people was analyzed, average noise levels of a little more than 45 decibels are already enough to increase the risk of heart attack, and for longer-term exposure, it even increases by up to 2.2 times;
High blood pressure: According to a study funded by the European Commission and involving close to 5,000 people living near the airports in Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, London, Milan and Stockholm, an increase of 10 decibels at night raises the risk of high blood pressure by about 14 percent. The researchers found similar effects among Berlin residents exposed to street noise;
Cardiovascular illnesses: As part of a study for the UBA, Bremen epidemiologist Eberhard Greiser analyzed data for a million people living near Cologne/Bonn Airport. They found that the risk of cardiovascular illnesses increases noticeably with prolonged exposure to noise levels of only 40 decibels. On average, men and women living near the airport took significantly more medications against high blood pressure, depression and sleep disorders.
Two-and-a-half months ago, a team headed by Mainz cardiologist Thomas Münzel provided a substantiated medical explanation for all of these observations. They had connected 75 volunteers aged 20 to 60 to blood pressure and heart rate monitors for several nights, and had exposed them to the simulated noise of landing aircraft on an MP3 player up to 60 times a night. After waking up, the subjects were also examined with ultrasound diagnostic equipment.
"The results clearly show that aircraft noise, even at relatively low noise levels, causes damage to the blood vessels," says Münzel. The study found that nighttime traffic noise raises blood pressure, causes the release of stress hormones, such as adrenalin, and stiffens blood vessels. In the long term, this can trigger chronic cardiovascular diseases, even to the point of life-threatening heart attacks.
The Mainz researchers were especially alarmed by the fact that they were unable to discern any adaptation effects even after the noise exposure procedure was repeated several times. "Blood pressure rises regardless of whether you wake up from the noise or not," says heart specialist Münzel. He notes that stress on the blood vessels was also observed in those subjects who claim to have gotten used to the noise.
- Part 1: Germans Crank Up Anti-Noise Protests
- Part 2: Assaulted by Noise