The Neglected Pollutants: the Effects of Artificial Light and Noise on Human Health

On 19 July 2023 the House of Lords published this report, the first to address the issue fully. Below is the summary of its findings. Although the Lords lacks the powers of the Commons, this is a significant step, calling on the government to take action.

‘Environmental noise and light pollution contribute to a range of adverse health outcomes including heart disease and premature death. Yet light and noise remain neglected pollutants, poorly understood and poorly regulated. Both noise and light pollution can impact negatively on human health through disrupting sleep and circadian rhythms, which leads to negative social and economic impacts.

Epidemiological evidence suggests that noise pollution can both cause annoyance and increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. Whilst the increased risk to an individual may be low, the exposure of millions of people results in a significant aggregate health burden. The World Health Organization estimates that noise pollution from traffic results in one million healthy life years lost in Western Europe every year; research from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that in 2018, 130,000 healthy life years were lost in the UK and that 40% of the British population are exposed to harmful noise levels from road traffic. Although there is a growing body of evidence that indicates adverse health impacts of noise and light pollution, there are still significant gaps. In the case of noise pollution, research to fill these gaps should include:

  • larger-scale epidemiological studies, supported by laboratory research to determine the mechanisms of harm;
  • updating burden-of-disease calculations with emerging evidence;
  • new metrics: we do not know the importance of pitch, peak volume and intermittency in terms of health impacts because current metrics are based on average volume of noise over a defined time period such as 24 hours;
  • the subjective experience of noise, particularly in indoor environments; and
  • the efficacy of interventions to reduce noise pollution on health.

The Government should establish an expert advisory group on noise pollution, as exists for air pollution, to assess new evidence for health effects and advise the Government accordingly.

Despite the common experience that light pollution is getting worse, there is no central UK monitoring of the problem, but rather citizen science and satellite imagery. This makes understanding the sources and impacts of light pollution difficult. More research is needed into measures of exposure to light pollution, especially indoors, to quantify the effects on sleep and health. Research could also usefully be conducted into the positive effects of light on health, for example through light therapy to improve sleep. Whilst more research is needed to update and refine our understanding, it is already recognised that noise and light pollution must be regulated. But the current Government approach is confused. Noise and light sit uncomfortably under the aegis of pollutants regulated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The 25 Year Environment Plan briefly mentions noise and light pollution, but with no specific targets and seemingly little impetus from central government to address them.

DEFRA should lead the development of analysis for noise and light pollution in order for the next five-year Environmental Improvement Plan to include specific targets for their reduction, setting an overall framework for regulation. Noise targets should focus on reducing the overall burden of disease with targeted interventions. For light pollution, setting a target will require quantification of the problem—through an agreed methodology—and monitoring. The Government should explain how regulatory and policy action on noise and light pollution will be used to deliver the targets. The five principles for good environmental management set out in the Environment Act 2021 and the Environmental Policy Principles Statement should be applied to the management of light and noise pollution as well.

We welcome DEFRA’s new noise pollution mapping tool and improved estimates for exposure, but unless this is followed up by policy action to reduce the impact of noise pollution, it will not result in public health benefits. The Government must use its new model to assess cost-effective interventions to reduce the disease burden from noise. Furthermore, the mapping tool measures only the average volume of noise over a defined time period, such as a whole day, and does not take into account the pitch of the sound or loud peaks of noise that could have a bigger health impact, for instance through sleep disturbance, than the average sound level.

DEFRA has the lead for regulating noise and light pollution, but many of the levers to act on these pollutants lie in other departments, such as the Department for Transport and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). DEFRA told us it viewed its role as highlighting problems for other departments to act on, but this is not adequate. The Government must strengthen interdepartmental co-ordination on these issues; it must be clear where within each department responsibility lies.

However, there is further confusion which makes it impossible to know whether regulation is effective. Responsibility for acting on noise and light pollution generally lies with local authorities, which come under DLUHC, and there is no requirement for local authorities to report back to DEFRA on complaints about noise and light pollution and the impact, for example, of the National Noise Policy Statement for England. So even where there is a policy in place, the evidence is not being collected to see whether it is effective. Local authorities are under-resourced and have to balance a range of demands, leading to inconsistent policy implementation between local authorities, with some exemplary while others lag behind. DEFRA and DHLUC need to close the feedback loop between policy ownership and policy impact for noise. In the case of light, we urge the Government to set an overall national policy for light pollution and to provide local authorities with the resources they need to take action in line with national targets. In issuing guidance, the Government can make use of existing work from professional institutions: best practice is already understood, but not always followed.

Light and noise pollution are currently neglected pollutants, but research indicates that they are causing significant health impacts and they are of growing concern to the public. In some cases they are easy to avoid through good design, in other cases investment will be needed. A renewed focus on these pollutants, with strengthened co-ordination between departments and between central and local government, would lead to meaningful improvements in public health and quality of life in the UK.’