It’s never been easier to shop to our hearts content: but at what cost to the environment? Fast fashion frequently hits the headlines for emissions and water pollution, but hereto noise pollution often slips under the radar.

Traditionally, the textile industry has been associated with significant noise exposure and textile workers themselves are known to be susceptible to noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). While globalisation has resulted in manufacturing being transferred across borders and continents, the noise problem has not gone away; it has merely been transferred from one region to another.  

According to European Environment Agency (EEA, 2019) data, there are around 171,000 companies in the textile industry, employing 1.7 million people in the EU. In 2017, the EU produced 7.4 kg of textiles per person while consuming nearly 26 kg. The EU is therefore a net importer of textiles (mainly finished products from Asia). In addition, most of the pressures and impacts related to the consumption of clothing, footwear and household textiles in Europe occur in other regions of the world, where the majority of production takes place.

Global reach

Based on industry data, in 2018, the global textile market was valued at over USD 900 billion and it is expected to generate over USD 1,200 billion by 2025. China and India have been dominant players in the manufacturing of textiles and it is difficult to source reliable data for these jurisdictions which identifies the contribution of the textile industry to NIHL.

In Ethiopia there has been a history of textile manufacturing for some years and it has been recently reported that the textile sector is considered by the government as the main priority for the country’s industrial development strategy (Ejigu, 2019). According to this publication, investment flows in the textile industries are extremely positive and ‘over 65 textile investment projects from international investors have been licensed in Ethiopia with retailers such as H&M and Primark.’ These textile industries incorporate modern automated machines, however, ‘emissions of excessive noise and ambient sound at work in the textile industry have shown a noticeable increase’. Noise levels of 70 to 110 dB are commonly recorded in textile plants workrooms and allegedly the progress towards greater speeds has resulted in excessive noise levels, often exceeding 110 dBA in spinning and weaving mills (Ejigu, 2019).

Burden of environmental noise and resource use

International studies have focussed on the burden of environmental noise for some time. The latest data (EEA, 2019) concludes that ‘long-term exposure to environmental noise is estimated to cause 12,000 premature deaths and contribute to 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease per year’ in Europe alone. Similarly, it is estimated that 22 million people suffer chronic high annoyance and 6.5 million people suffer chronic high sleep disturbance as a result of environmental noise exposure throughout the EU member states.

Environmental noise encompasses all types of noise which potentially affects us at home and in public areas (e.g., on busy roads, in urban areas or rural countryside). The problems of Workplace Noise or Occupational Exposure affect the most exposed and vulnerable employees. Nonetheless, if noise breakout from a manufacturing facility (textile or otherwise) affects its neighbours, the issue then becomes one of environmental noise. However, it is important to highlight that industrial noise is by far the smallest contributor to population noise exposure compared with other noise sources. In addition, the predominant source of environmental noise exposure in Europe arises from road traffic.

Resource inputs and the environmental emissions from textiles occur in every phase: from production of fibres and textile products to distribution and retail, use of textiles, collection, sorting and recycling, and final waste management. Pressures from and impacts of the “textiles system” include the use of resources, land and chemicals, and the emission of greenhouse gases (EEA, 2019).

With consumers buying to excess safe in the knowledge they can return anything unwanted, fleets of vehicles are on the roads everyday ferrying our purchases to and fro as we order and return swathes of fabric. No harm done, we say, as returns are widely free of charge and the goods will be refunded promptly. Yet nothing comes without a cost, and the price for free returns must be paid somewhere. All too often, it’s the environment that foots the bill. However, it is noteworthy that ‘regarding the total use of primary raw materials in the supply chain for consumption in the EU, clothing, footwear and household textiles represents the fourth highest pressure category after food, housing and transport’ (EEA, 2019).

Environmental stressors

Environmental stressors such as noise and air pollution are becoming more prevalent in our industrialised world and traffic noise from road, aircraft, and railway transportation represents a potential cardiovascular risk. 

Many millions of people around the world are significantly affected by environmental noise in their communities. (Munzel, et al 2018). Noise is a nonspecific stressor that activates the autonomous nervous system and endocrine signalling. According to the 2018 review, noise exposure can cause “disturbances of activity, sleep, and communication, which can trigger a number of emotional responses, including annoyance and subsequent stress. Chronic stress in turn is associated with cardiovascular risk factors, comprising increased blood pressure and dyslipidemia, increased blood viscosity and blood glucose, and activation of blood clotting factors, in animal models and humans” (Munzel, et al. 2018). 

“epidemiological studies has clearly linked exposure to environmental noise with adverse health effects”

Historically, industrialisation, transportation and urbanisation has brought environmental noise to the forefront and the sustainability of future growth and development can be challenged due to the negative effects of noise. These effects impact on the quality of life and wellbeing of people as well as its potential for causing harmful physiological health effects. Recent evidence from large-scale epidemiological studies has clearly linked exposure to environmental noise with adverse health effects. Therefore, environmental noise needs to be considered not only as a cause of nuisance but also as
a real concern for public health.

The environmental burden of disease has been addressed by many international publications and the principle non-auditory effects of environmental noise are as follows:

  • Cardiovascular function (hypertension, changes to blood pressure and/or heart rate)
  • Changes in breathing
  • Annoyance
  • Sleep disruption with consequent physical and mental health effects
  • Decreased school and cognitive performance

However, it can be challenging to exclusively link the effects of environmental noise while at the same time exclude the effects of other agents and stressors in the environment. Nonetheless, noise can cause long-term psychological stress due to the lack of sleep and the production of stress hormones and both of these increase cardiovascular risk. According to the World Medical Association (2017) ‘the stress caused by environmental noise is a central concern, not only in the industrial nations, but increasingly also in the developing countries.’ 

Sensitivity to noise

In a 2019 study, Abbasi (et al.) investigated the relationship among noise exposure, sensitivity, and noise annoyance with job satisfaction and job stress amongst workers in a textile industry. The study used a Noise Annoyance Scale (based on ISO 15666-2003), Weinstein’s Noise Sensitivity Scale and a Health and Safety Executive Job Stress Questionnaire (amongst other methods).

The Abbasi (et al.) study concluded that ‘that occupational noise exposure, noise annoyance, and noise sensitivity can increase job stress and decrease job satisfaction. Among these factors, noise sensitivity has the greatest impact on job stress and job satisfaction’. Their study also observed that noise annoyance is related to the personal perception of noise exposure and this ‘can affect stress and satisfaction that are part of human mental health’. However, similar to workplace noise, exposure to environmental noise does not affect everyone in the same way. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA, 2020) ‘personal characteristics, including age, gender, lifestyle or pre-existing health conditions, determine how susceptible people are to adverse health effects due to noise pollution’.

Humans can be significantly more sensitive to some sources of noise than others, e.g., greater sensitivity has been demonstrated to aircraft noise than to industrial noise, railway and road traffic noise. International research on this topic has verified and endorsed the findings of dose-response relationship studies. These are generally published as mathematical relationships between measured noise levels and a specific response (e.g., the percentage of population highly annoyed at a certain level of noise exposure). In this context annoyance can be a precursor to serious health effects such as hypertension, changes to blood pressure and/or heart rate, changes in breathing, sleep disruption with consequent health effects.

However, dose-response relationships should always be interpreted with caution. Regardless of the source, there is likely to be a wide range of responses and reactions to noise at a particular level due to individual variability, susceptibility and a myriad of other personal factors. Nonetheless, many countries across Europe have established national limit values for environmental noise. When defining these national limit values, countries take into consideration different factors including the type of the noise source, the time of day during which the noise occurs, whether the noise is due to an existing or new development, the land area type and the sensitivity of the receivers (EEA, 2020).

“environmental noise is different from other pollutants in that its potential impact is dependent on a wide range of influences many of which are non-acoustic”

In practice, even within Europe, the reported limit values for environmental noise are extremely variable, and rather than focussing on the absolute noise levels from a source we may need to consider a wide range of issues. This is because environmental noise is different from other pollutants in that its potential impact is dependent on a wide range of influences many of which are non-acoustic. 

Rather than simply comparing measured noise levels against a single limit or guideline, the noise specialist will need to carefully monitor and assess the noise in accordance with a particular standard or code of practice. When it comes to interpreting the data, the competent specialist will call on a wide range of criteria and guidance and form an opinion as to the likely effect of the noise.

The starting point in any noise monitoring programme is a consideration of the type of noise, the objective of the monitoring and the local circumstances and criteria. Very often a particular standard or code of practice will apply and in many instances there may be statutory obligations to fulfil and certain monitoring requirements which cannot be overlooked.

Acoustic and non-acoustic factors

A range of factors (acoustic and non-acoustic) will affect the tolerance and or reaction of an individual to noise and the overall impact of a noise source. British Standard BS 4142 (2014), for example, gives predominant emphasis to the degree by which the noise exceeds the pre-existing (or background) sound levels. This ‘comparative assessment’ approach makes a good deal of sense and has been supported by empirical evidence over half a century. The original BS4142 was first published in 1967 and the current (2014) version is the fourth edition. In general, the main implication of the latest version is the importance of context and the use of professional judgement. 

BS 4142 (2014) requires the assessor to consider the context and in the deliberation on context one of the pertinent factors which must be taken into consideration, includes ‘the absolute level of sound’. The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2000) has specified absolute, guideline values for community noise in specific environments and LAeq is generally the preferred index. LAeq is the ‘equivalent continuous level’ or the ‘time average noise level’, i.e., the equivalent steady sound level in decibels containing the same acoustic energy as the actual fluctuating sound level over the given sampling period. 

According to the WHO (2000), to protect the majority of people from being seriously annoyed during the daytime, the sound pressure level on balconies, terraces and outdoor living areas should not exceed 55 dBA LAeq for a steady continuous noise (this LAeq is assessed over a 16-hour daytime and evening period). The 2000 WHO guidelines also state: ‘at night-time, outside sound levels about 1 metre from facades of living spaces should not exceed 45 dB LAeq, so that people may sleep with bedroom windows open.’

In addition to specifying the above guideline values the WHO also states that ‘lower levels may be annoying, depending on the nature of the noise source’ (Berglund et al. WHO, 2000). A tonal noise for example is likely to be more annoying a broadband noise of the same LAeq value. 

A summary of the pertinent guideline values is provided in Table 1.

The WHO updated their guidance (Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region) in 2018.) The 2018 guidelines separately consider outdoor exposure to environmental noise from road traffic, railway traffic, aircraft, wind turbines as well as outdoor and indoor exposure during leisure activities (such as attending nightclubs, pubs, fitness classes, live sporting events, concerts etc.).

However, the 2018 guidelines do not provide specific recommendations for the prevention of health effects linked to ‘neighbourhood noise’. In this context, ‘neighbourhood noise’ is considered that which ‘may stem from various potential sources of noise (such as ventilation systems; church bells; animals; neighbours; commercial, recreational and occupational activities; or shooting/military).’ The 2018 guidelines do not explicitly consider indoor guideline values and any values not covered by the WHO 2018 guidelines (such as industrial, commercial and neighbourhood noise) remain valid.

“it is important that the assessor does not look to the WHO guidelines as a definitive trigger above which there is a problem and below which there is none”

It is important that the assessor does not look to the WHO guidelines as a definitive trigger above which there is a problem and below which there is none. Unfortunately, environmental noise is seldom so clear-cut and very often we need to look beyond the decibels. In some cases, we may need to consider if the noise at a particular location would be likely to give reasonable grounds for compliant. Some of the pertinent factors we should factor in to our assessment might include:

  • The time, duration and predictability of the emission
  • The amplitude and frequency of the noise emission
  • The absolute sound pressure level of the noise source and variations over time
  • Variations in the hearing sensitivity of individuals
  • Site location, local land use, nature and character of the locality
  • Activities underway when noise is audible
  • Local attitudes to the source or sources of the noise
  • The likely duration of the noise and the ability and/or willingness to control its impact.
  • The presence of special acoustic characteristics such as tones, impulsive elements or modulation (where the noise level changes in its loudness, tone or character)
  • The incongruity or familiarity of the noise – is it typical of noise which would be normally heard in the area?

Summary  In summary, many social, psychological and economic factors can affect the sensitivity of an individual or a situation over time. In investigating complaints, a competent assessment should include a considered opinion as to whether a noise complaint is justified. Rather than looking at a single decibel level to determine compliance, the assessor should look at the big picture, taking into consideration all of the relevant evidence. Consideration of contextual issues and the application of professional judgement will allow him/her to reach a conclusion and to provide appropriate advice and recommendations as required.