Drowning out the noise

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 31 Jul 2016

With the country racing towards developed status, noise pollution is the price Malaysians are paying for urban development.

WITH development, comes noise. And noise, explains Prof Dr M. Salman Leong, is as widespread as it is a diffusive and pervasive phenomenon.

Ultimately, it is the price and consequence of progress, says the director of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Institute of Noise and Vibration.

“Noise is a recognised pollution source and an accepted consequence of big projects. Two or three decades ago, people were more tolerant but with technology and exposure to higher noise control standards overseas, Malaysians now expect a better quality of life, sonically speaking.”

The institute is looking at how noise and vibration from construction impact sensitive receptors like houses, schools, hospitals and residential areas.

The institute – which analyses and designs mitigation measures for places affected by noise caused by the use of roads, railways and airports – is a referral centre and consultant for the construction industry and government agencies for noise, vibration and seismic engineering. It is also involved in mega transportation projects such as the construction of the country’s MRT and LRT systems, highways, and KLIA2, and is working on the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the proposed Penang LRT.

Dr Leong believes that, barring localised problems, noise is the most common pollution source in developed countries.

“But those staying on the East Coast next to the oil and gas towns of Kemaman and Kerteh may insist that air pollution is worse. Water pollution is a problem for those living near the sea or rivers. So water and air pollution are very localised – it all depends on where you are. But nationwide, I think noise is the biggest source of pollution, as it effects everyone.”

Road traffic, he says, is the most common noise pollution source because it is the most pervasive. Whether it’s Tokyo, Sydney or London, global studies cite road traffic as the biggest headache because it’s a common phenomenon synonymous with development. In Malaysia, however, construction noise is the biggest grouse.

Singapore, he notes, has more stringent construction laws compared with Malaysia’s. There, every construction project – regardless of size – must be continuously monitored for noise and vibration throughout the project’s duration. If the project is valued at more than S$5mil (RM15mil), the data must be available 24/7 online and in real time. Smaller projects are also measured but only weekly reports are required.

“We’re not there yet. Here, monitoring of this scale is for MRT projects and on a monthly basis. Continuous monitoring is only for underground work as part of the environmental management plan,” Dr Leong says.

Recent MRT projects in the Klang Valley have really raised the bar in Malaysia because of stringent noise control requirements imposed by the Department of Environment (DOE). The first few LRT projects in Malaysia – the Star and Putra lines in the Klang Valley – didn’t have noise control measures because there weren’t any guidelines then and the EIA requirements were not as tight. Flooded with noise pollution complaints during those projects, the DOE has required all subsequent MRT and LRT projects to have noise barriers.

While Singapore has stringent requirements for managing construction noise, Malaysia’s guidelines on doing the same for noise from trains and highways are stricter, Dr Leong feels. Train noise standards imposed by the DOE are comparable to European Union standards.

“Our best practices are stricter than Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. We’re second only to Japan. Our new highway noise levels are on par with developed countries. We’re not backwards when it comes to noise management.

“Previously, Singapore was more concerned with construction noises so they paid less attention to highways and trains. It was only last year that they spent S$300mil (RM900mil) to fit noise control barriers in their MRT. It was done retrospectively because their citizens had complained about the trains.”

Malaysians, Dr Leong says, complain about traffic noise and are fearful of construction – especially construction involving public transportation infrastructure. The country’s first proper noise barriers were installed on the highways in the 1990s. The Ampang-Kuala Lumpur Elevated Highway was the first full-blown attempt at highway noise mitigation. But the toll roads that came after that highway still used first generation noise barriers. In South Korea, China and Japan, transparent tunnels covering the roads are common but while the technology exists here, cost is an issue.

We haven’t gone into building such enclosures, according to Dr Leong, but the Setiawangsa-Pantai Expressway, Damansara-Shah Alam Highway, Bandar Utama-Klang LRT (all in the Klang Valley), and the proposed Penang LRT will see the next generation of noise barriers being installed. These, he says, are much more effective in noise mitigation because they cover a larger portion of the road.

“We’re using acoustic metal panels instead of polycarbonate or perspex – which can cost five times more – to absorb sound. The panels are covered by a curved mesh designed by architect Hijas Kasturi.”

Generally, noise levels will only increase up to a certain point before they level off as road construction stops. So in some urban areas, the noise level improves over time. Levels will only get worse if a new noise source, like a new housing development, comes up. It will then be up to the DOE to ensure that mitigation measures are in place.

Noise pollution, Dr Leong stresses, isn’t merely an annoying sound.

“Noise pollution affects entire communities but what’s annoying is subjective. If a train passes by and for the next 30 seconds you can’t even hear yourself speak, then it’s noise pollution. But if you live near an MRT with noise barriers in place, you cannot insist on complete silence.”

Noise pollution effects entire communities but what’s annoying is subjective. If a train passes by and for the next 30 seconds you can’t even hear yourself speak, then it’s noise pollution. - Dr Salman Leong

He says there are two ways to see if a sound is acceptable:

Compare the new noise to an absolute limit – The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Environment Protection Administration recommends “good noise levels” or absolute limits, but these, Dr Leong feels, are too idealistic. In developed areas, there’s already an existing noise level so a new MRT isn’t going to cause deafness.

For example, the recommended noise level in a school or in low-rise areas is between 50dBA and 55dBA (dBA stands for “A-weigh-ted decibels”, a measure of sound).

But a lot of places in KL have existing noise levels of between 60dBA and 65dBA. So if you add a new noise source, it should not be louder than those existing levels. You cannot say no to an MRT in a school area because it breaches the WHO’s 50dBA to 55dBA limit if the noise recorded in the area is already 70dBA, points out Dr Leong.

Compare the new noise to a relative noise – Comparing a train or lorry passing to air-conditioning noise, for example. If the noise level goes up by 10dBA because of this new noise source, that source is seen as a disturbance. But this disturbance is only considered a pollution if the whole housing estate is impacted.

Dr Leong thinks measuring the baseline first is the best and most logical approach; then you can compare a new noise source with what’s already there. It’s good to compare with an absolute number but it must always be in the context of the existing environment, he feels.

How noise pollution is determined when a complaint is made:

> The noise level is measured with and without the new offending source – for example, a highway when cars aren’t on it. If a new highway is constructed, the baseline must be set before the project starts so in the future, when a complaint is made, there’s a baseline to compare before and after noise levels.

> The new noise level is compared with land use – There are different noise limits for low-density, commercial and industrial areas.

> See if the noise level is outside the norm – For example, if somebody staying in SS2, Petaling Jaya, complains that the new traffic noise level is 65dBA, it’s not outside the norm because even when cars aren’t running, the noise level in the area is already 65dBA. But if the same complaint was made in Kenny Hills, KL, where average noise levels are lower, 65dBA is a problem.

The DOE commissioned Dr Leong to conduct a social impact study on the extent of noise pollution in the country and this led to the publication of the Guidelines for Environmental Noise Control in 2004.

“The guidelines are a set of best practices. They don’t have legislative power and they don’t apply retrospectively. You cannot just make a law prohibiting noise disturbance because it’s very subjective.”

Under the Environmental Quality Act, an EIA report is a must for big projects but the DOE can, under the guidelines, require such a report for small projects that don’t come under the Act.

A developer of a new project cannot be expected to suck up the noise in places that are already noisy, Dr Leong says, pointing to KL as an example. This is because the noise level in cities are already way above the noise levels set out in the guidelines.

While the Guidelines for Environmental Noise Control also recommend best practices to prevent annoyance and disturbance to the neighbourhood, enforcement is an issue. In Malaysia, it seems that people just don’t care.

“For example, shouting ‘old newspaper, old newspaper’ to attract attention, car alarms going off every half-hour, or using lawnmowers at odd hours, riding bikes in quiet neighbourhoods, all this has more to do with society and public nuisance than noise pollution.

Malaysia, unlike countries like Australia, is more accepting of such nuisances – even considering them normal. These are inconsiderate acts which neither the DOE nor local councils can act against.”

Related stories:

Quiet please

Can you hEAR me?

Keeping the noise down at airports in India

Sonic pain

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