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British Columbia Good vibrations: Waking up to noise pollution’s threats, Canada’s cities and transit agencies look for a better way

David Bosworth, his wife and 10-year-old son have seen steadily increasing train traffic on the tracks in their Upper Beaches neighbourhood, and the noise has kept them from a restless night's sleep.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

When the commuter trains pass by David Bosworth’s home in Toronto’s Upper Beaches, conversations abruptly stop with no explanation or apology, only to continue when the rail cars finish their route through the neighbourhood.

“[The noise and vibrations] definitely has a negative effect on our family’s sleep,” Mr. Bosworth says. “We particularly notice it with our 10-year-old son, who hasn’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep in the five years we’ve lived in our home.”

Mr. Bosworth, a 54-year-old freelance writer and media-relations specialist who lives with his wife and son, said when he first moved in, the trains passed once an hour. They have become more frequent over the past five years, and the regional transportation agency Metrolinx is looking to create additional tracks on the line.

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Mr. Bosworth is concerned about the proposed expansion, fearing more noise, vibrations and stress.

He’s not alone, as residents, local governments and researchers become increasingly aware of the dangers of noise pollution, which has been linked to a range of health problems. And experts say Canadian cities have largely failed to take the issue seriously, though they hold up Toronto as the notable exception and a potential model for other jurisdictions.

Mr. Bosworth, watching from his home as trains pass by, is worried a transit expansion will mean more stress and noise.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The issue has taken on a new urgency in Canada’s biggest city, where Metrolinx says it has implemented a list of measures to reduce noise along the $5.3-billion Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line, and where Mayor John Tory promised new bylaws to tackle noise pollution in the recent civic election.

The level of noise people in Canada’s largest cities are exposed to every day has been linked to increased risk of heart attack, slower metabolisms, smaller birth sizes in children and cognitive challenges.

But a combination of inconsistent rules, poor tracking and a failure to treat noise as a public-health issue has meant local governments have done little to address it.

In Toronto, Metrolinx says the 19-kilometre Eglinton Crosstown line that will cut through the middle of the city once when it’s completed is designed to reduce noise and its impact on nearby residents.

The trains will be electric, which reduces vibrations. Nearly half of the line will be underground, with those portions constructed deeper than the city’s existing subway network. The combination of a deeper system and electric vehicles has been designed to meet the latest international vibration standards.

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“Public transit in densely populated urban neighbourhoods is challenging for many reasons, but one is to manage the noise level for local residents when transit is operational,” said Metrolinx senior manager media Anne Marie Aikins in an e-mail. “We want to be good neighbours and contribute to making life more comfortable, less stressful, and lower noise levels in neighbourhoods.”

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT will use electric trains and mostly underground routes that, among other things, aims to keep noise to a minimum.

CNW Group/Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships

The approach to the Crosstown project is part of a larger strategy in Toronto aimed at reducing noise pollution from traffic, transit and other infrastructure projects. The city has conducted a number of studies, and recommendations are being applied not only to transit construction but also to new building designs and at Toronto Pearson International Airport, which is committing to a higher level of consultation, operational changes and the monitoring and reporting of aircraft noise.

Hugh Davies, a professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in noise pollution and its effect on health, said governments can no longer ignore the issue.

“There should be advocates out there that recognize this is an important determinant of health,” said Dr. Davies. “Under the government, the law at the moment in noise and impact assessments, the way that they’ve done it, is inconsistent at best."

World Health Organization guidelines say anything above 55 decibels at night is considered “dangerous for public health,” potentially leading to adverse health effects. That’s the average level of noise produced by a refrigerator or air conditioner.

Dr. Davies explained that noise affects the heart and other bodily functions due to the way the body internalizes stress. These responses are both hormonal and physiological, causing a change in the shape of blood vessels, higher blood pressure and a spike in a number of hormones.

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And while a person in a noisy setting can become used to it, that sound can still shock the body and brain.

“Noise is just a very good stressor …,” said Dr. Davies. “It becomes toxic, basically.”

He said reducing average traffic noise by just three or four decibels could address some of those health problems.

A study published in July in a German academic journal found a slight increased risk in heart attacks as people were exposed to traffic and rail noise.

In the most recent data available, major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto had a median noise level of at least 63 decibels during the day – well above the WHO guidelines. And a 2017 study from the University of Toronto found that peak noise in various city transportation systems, including the subway, buses and vehicles, can exceed 115 decibels.

Data on noise pollution is often unreliable, out of date or non-existent. When noise is addressed, such as through bylaws and complaint systems, it’s typically treated as a nuisance rather than a public-health issue.

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“There is nothing for instance in Vancouver, and making people aware of the noise levels around where they live using visual tools like noise maps I think is quite effective,” said Dr. Davies.

In the past five years, there has been a steady increase in the number of noise complaints in several Canadian cities. In 2017, Vancouver saw a 37 per cent increase in the number of noise complaints received compared to 2013. Toronto and Montreal have reported similar increases.

Romain Dumoulin saw this first hand while he worked as a noise-control officer for Montreal in 2014 and 2015. Mr. Dumoulin, now an acoustician and project manager at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology at McGill University, said noise-control regimes in Canadian cities suffer from poor follow-up, incomplete tracking and a lack of concern.

For example, he said that in Montreal, after a resident calls 311, noise complaints will often not be archived or recorded because “traffic noise is not part of their scope.”

The City of Toronto website has a page dedicated to noise and health, including a report done in 2017 on the impacts of noise in the city and ways to reduce risk. That study, titled How Loud Is Too Loud?, found that noise levels during the day were above 55 decibels over 62 per cent of the time that noise was being monitored – 59 per cent of which could be traced back to traffic noise.

Canadian cities may be able to look at Europe for guidance.

The European arm of the World Health Organization has spent millions researching and developing guidelines for healthy noise levels. The first set of community noise guidelines was published in 1999, and a night-noise guideline summary was released in 2009. Since then, they have become the main starting point for bylaws and guidelines around the world.

WHO/Europe last month released an updated set of guidelines, with recommended noise levels for road traffic, railways, aircrafts, wind turbines and leisure. The recommendations put emphasis on exploring annoyance and health concerns felt by the exposed public, as well as the effects on children’s blood pressure. The publication includes the newest evidence of health issues, up-to-date noise levels and a new standardized framework.

A major key to the European Union’s success in noise health is its Environmental Noise Directive (END), a program that requires cities to develop noise maps every five years and create action plans to tackle noise hot spots.

Italy has greatly benefited from noise mapping, with Florence being one of the most advanced cities in that area.

A European Environment Agency map of excessive daytime noise in Florence, Italy. "Lden" is the daytime, evening and night noise level — the average noise over the course of an entire day.

Since 2008, the city, along with a team of consultants, city planners and engineers, has been working on implementing a noise action plan, required as part of the END. Each city can develop and implement these action plans in their own way, which in Florence meant bringing in Raffaella Bellomini, the CEO of Vie en.ro.se. Ingegneria consulting group.

“Florence is very sensitive about noise issues,” said Dr. Bellomini in an instant-messaging exchange. “The aim is to improve the acoustic situation of the cities, reducing the number of residents exposed to high noise levels.”

In the past 10 years, more than €42-million have been spent in Florence on noise interventions such as the replacement of old pavements and school remodelling, which was a priority of city planners.

The introduction of pedestrian areas in busy locations like Palazzo Pitti has been “a revolution” in Florence, where Dr. Bellomini said the noise problem is now solved.

Since 2008, the average noise measured throughout the day has been reduced from over 70 decibels to less than 55 decibels during the daytime.

For Dr. Davies, the UBC professor, Canadian cities should be moving toward a European approach. He said the main key to improving the issue in Canada could be Europe’s noise-mapping model, and including noise in environmental-impact research. He also stressed the potential impacts of road design and lowering speed limits.

“Make sure noise is adequately addressed in impact assessments for large developments and new roads, new institutions, new industries and so on, and new transportation routes,” said Dr. Davies.

“Making people aware of the noise levels around where they live using visual tools like noise maps I think is quite effective.”

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail



Sasha Zeidler reported this story as part of Langara College’s Read-Mercer Scholarship.

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