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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 23:54 GMT 00:54 UK
Traffic noise 'harms' child health
Traffic noise: A constant distraction?
Living near a busy road may stop a child doing well at school, say scientists.

The noise is bad for mental health, according to a study of schoolchildren in Austria.

A child's academic performance, behaviour and attention span could all be affected by the hum of traffic or other sounds.

Being constantly surrounded by everyday noise appears to be the main factor.

It has "very subtle influences on children's motivation and cognitive development", says research leader Dr Peter Lercher of the University of Innsbruck.


There has not been clear research evidence to support or dispute whether noise exposure is linked to mental health problems in children

Dr Mary Haines, University of London
The reason why noise might affect mental health is not clear but one theory is that children living in noisy environments learn to filter out everyday sounds.

This stops them taking in certain information during lessons.

One solution, said Dr Lercher, is for architects and town planners to give more thought to how they plan buildings.

"They should give more attention to how people deal with noise that is everywhere," he told BBC News Online. "They should plan quiet and safe places."

Mountain towns

The evidence comes from a study of 1,400 children aged between eight and 11 years, living in the Tyrol region of Austria.

The area is made up of small mountain towns and villages with a mixture of industry, small businesses and farmland.

The busy highway that connects the north and the south of the country runs through the area.

The researchers looked at the children's birth records and obtained reports from teachers on academic performance and behaviour.

The children were also asked how often they felt anxious, stressed or depressed and if they had sleep problems.

The scientists found that environmental noise significantly affected how the children behaved in class, their social behaviour and how easily they were distracted.

Noise appeared to have an accumulative effect. The higher the levels of environmental noise, the greater the impact on mental health.

There was also a link with children's birth history. Those born prematurely or of low weight were more at risk.

No clear link

Commenting on the study, Dr Mary Haines of Queen Mary, University of London, said further research was necessary to provide confirmatory evidence.

"To date there has not been clear research evidence to support or dispute whether noise exposure is linked to mental health problems in children," she told BBC News Online.

"These new results from Dr Lercher's well respected research team provide new evidence that chronic exposure to environmental noise may be associated with mental health problems in children."

Dr Haines said it was of particular concern whether children who had existing health difficulties were most at risk.

"On one hand, these results are in agreement with our findings from the West London School Study where aircraft noise exposure around Heathrow airport was weakly associated with mental health problems," she said.

"On the other hand, other studies have not found an association between environmental noise and mental health."

The research is published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

See also:

26 Nov 01 | Health
25 Apr 02 | UK
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