I am fortunate to live in one of the few remaining traditional villages of Malta. It is a characteristic rural village, still surrounded by good quality agricultural land and small rustic chapels built before the time of the Knights.
Like many of the dwindling examples of such villages, it was created by the interaction over the centuries of human activity and the natural environment.
There are still wide areas of rugged, open country, thinly cultivated fields, a wide commanding valley separating it from Żurrieq amongst which little isolated cubic-shaped farmhouses, some gathered into hamlets, connected only by rough tracks or narrow roads, still survive.
This is as near as one can get these days to the indigenous architecture of Malta, little changed since the time of the Phoenicians.
But much as I love this village and the people in it, each year on the Feast of Santa Marija we are rocked each night for a week by a bombardment of petards (murtali).
The salvos come from our village, as well as the adjacent one simultaneously celebrating this great feast of the Assumption and the historic events of 77 years ago.
The fireworks lighting the skies over Malta and Gozo (for there are seven Santa Marija festas being celebrated tomorrow) are outstanding. But the noise of the petards is execrable.
A few years ago, the eminent former Chief Justice of Malta, Vincent Degaetano, made a scathing judgment about the inconvenience caused by petards. He described the “savage bombardment and the senseless explosions” that accompany or precede fireworks displays during the festas as “causing great inconvenience, terrifying pets and children as well as the not so young, and disturbed people who were ill or who could not move away from the area where fireworks were being let off”.
But what he also revealed is that although there are laws in Malta forbidding noise pollution, there are none regulating the worst noise offender – murtali. If we play music at full volume at two o’clock in the morning at higher decibel levels than those laid down we can be prosecuted for causing noise pollution. But if we set off large petards throughout the summer months, we will not be.
For reasons best known to themselves, our legislators have omitted to ensure that our noise pollution legislation covers the worst offenders in our land: the makers and users of murtali. A cynic might think that this is another instance of legislators kow-towing to a special interest group.
There is a gaping loophole in our law. As the marvellous Santa Marija festas will surely remind us tomorrow, the noise pollution engendered by petards should be brought under stricter control. This said, my English grandchildren love the fireworks displays and I shall be joining them on the roof to watch the Maltese skies ablaze.
The difficulty of finding quiet places in Malta has always been a problem. Obtrusive noise is everywhere. But it is increasingly exacerbated in a society that appears not to appreciate the need for tranquillity. Malta is getting noisier. Our ears are permanently embattled.
Unwanted noise is an under-recognised health problem for it can raise blood pressure and depress the immune system. There is a growing body of evidence that high levels of noise pose a significant risk to physical and mental health.
Noise isn’t just annoying. It takes years off your life. Stress, heart disease, diabetes are all affected and exacerbated by aural environmental pollution.
Employers have for many years had in place strict rules about shielding staff from loud machinery at work. Yet experts increasingly believe that we also need protecting from noise that, while not deafening, seeps into our lives, such as traffic, neighbours’ music, barking dogs and aircraft flying overhead.
The health implications of noise are multi-faceted and widespread. Noise creates stress. If a person does not have the control button to turn it off, then they become more stressed and annoyed. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the impacts of noise include ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, tinnitus, sleep disturbance and “cognitive impairment in children”.
The health implications of noise are multi-faceted and widespread. Noise creates stress
The latter is borne out by the results of a study a decade ago into the effects of noise on schoolchildren in London, Amsterdam and Madrid looking at memory and reading ability of those living under flight paths. It found that on average children exposed to constant aircraft noise were two months behind reading age compared with other children.
WHO estimates that in western Europe traffic noise alone results in an annual loss of “at least one million healthy years of life”. Stephen Stansfeld is the emeritus professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London and considered one of the world’s leading noise experts. He advised WHO when it drew up its report into health implications of noise.
He says: “This is not scaremongering. The WHO guidelines took more than five years to publish. They are evidence-based and health-based.”
Noise can harm humans, not just at night when sleep is disturbed, but also during the day. Professor Stansfeld says it seems most likely to be a stress response, where people get physiologically aroused by the noise. “Our brains”, he reported “are programmed to respond to noises. In evolutionary terms, noises were potentially a source of danger. Over a long period, if you are stressed, that can put up your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack”.
In Paris, it has been concluded by an organisation monitoring noise that residents in the loudest parts of the capital lose “more than three healthy life-years”. Imperial College London has found that road traffic noise above 50 decibels – quieter than human conversation – can increase the risk of hypertension and ischemic heart disease and lead to heart attacks.
The cacophony of noise that is Malta today is undermining our quality of life and adversely affecting our health.
This is a densely populated and incredibly noisy country. Needless use of car horns and souped-up vehicles on the road, blaring radios, open-air discos, rowdy neighbours – everywhere one is assailed by noise, never more so than in the summer months when our village festas and the murtali rend the air.