EU citizens plagued by noise will in future sleep easier following the European Parliament's victory in its battle for EU-wide noise limits. A new directive on environmental noise contains a binding commitment to introduce follow-up legislation to deal with the major sources of noise pollution, including noise from rail, road, building sites and air traffic.
Noise pollution now afflicts a third of the EU's population and has damaging consequences for human health. Legislation in this area has until now been an unsatisfactory hotchpotch, with EU noise laws regulating products like cars, trucks and aircraft while national legislation has focused on noise levels in the domestic environment.
The new directive on the assessment and management of environmental noise, which took effect on 18 July 2002, applies to environmental noise in built-up areas and public parks, and near schools, hospitals and other noise-sensitive buildings and areas. It does not apply to noise from domestic activities, from neighbours, at work, inside means of transport or from military activities in military areas.
Both the European Commission and the Council of Ministers had originally wanted to limit the new directive to harmonising methods for measuring environmental noise, gathering noise exposure information in the form of "noise maps" and making this information publicly available. Practical plans to tackle the problem could then be formulated at local level but there would be no EU-wide noise limits. Not satisfied with this, Parliament negotiated hard to tighten up the basic goal of the directive, which is now to "avoid, prevent or reduce" the harmful effects of exposure to noise. The new legislation thus becomes just the first stage in the process and must - crucially - be followed within four years by more detailed EU directives on specific sources of noise such as road and rail vehicles and infrastructure, aircraft, outdoor and industrial equipment and mobile machinery.
The agreement that MEPs reached with the Council required the Commission to publish a review by January 2004 of existing Community legislation on environmental noise. Following its review, the Commission must propose new draft laws by July 2006 (four years after the directive came into effect) to plug any gaps in that legislation. The four-year deadline - only one year longer than the three years Parliament demanded at second reading - is another gain achieved by Parliament as Council had been reluctant to set any deadline at all.