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.
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.