Some decibel levels are unsafe in Abu Dhabi, and residents complain that night-time construction keeps them awake.
Sound of progress leaves ears ringing
ABU DHABI // The cost of rapid development in the capital is noise pollution and sleep deprivation for some inner-city residents, who say they are constantly living and working next to building sites. As the capital develops at a feverish pace, some residents say they seldom get a moment's peace or a good night's sleep, while businesses say nearby construction is costing them money.
For some, the cacophony of construction is no more than a nuisance. But for others, who live or work within metres of busy building sites, the noise is a potential health hazard. In some cases the decibel levels are so high they could lead to permanent hearing damage, according to international guidelines. Residents of several apartment blocks surrounding the sprawling new Central Market site near the Corniche end of Airport Road complain of constant noise.
"It is so noisy at night - the noise is all day here," said Hadi al Choumari, 25, who moved to a first-floor flat near the Central Market site 18 months ago. "You can't get rest if you need to sleep. When I came here, I got maybe eight hours of sleep a night. And now maybe I get five hours or less." The computer-skills instructor said he was often too tired to do his job. "I would like them to stop at night - they have to think of other people living here. But I don't think they will stop."
Guidelines produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) say that, for good sleep, night-time sound levels should not exceed 30 decibels for continuous background noise or 45dB for "individual noise events". According to measurements taken by The National, building work at the Central Market site often hit 76dB at 10.30 at night. When measured in the early afternoon, the site generated an average 81dB, with occasional peaks of 86dB when drilling was under way.
The WHO guidelines say: "Exposure for more than eight hours a day to sound in excess of 85dB is potentially hazardous." Khaldoun Otabashi, 33, who works in the Adalia clothes shop, adjoining the Central Market site, said building work often continued up to the shop's 10.30pm closing time. "Since the work started, our business has gone down around 50 per cent," he said. "Costs are high here, so that plays a part.
"The noise is so bad that sometimes you can't open the door. You need fresh air sometimes, but with this noise and dust, you just can't do it. "It is very difficult to speak to customers, you often can't speak to them because you can't hear them. The new market is going to be very good once it is finished. But it has been going on a long time." In tests conducted at the Capital Plaza development near the Royal Meridien hotel on Khalifa Street, the sound of pneumatic drills and other machinery reached 86dB.
Normal work at the site regularly reached 82dB. Babu Cek, 50, the owner of a nearby furnishing store, said: "In the middle of the day, it is very bad. You can't be outside for very long at all. "It is all the time, it continues all day. You cannot leave the door open or do anything outside. They do stop at 6pm usually, but in the day, it is very difficult to concentrate on your job." Nearby, a wrecking ball demolishing an old building to make way for a tower block near Al Mariah Mall notched up 87dB when it struck its target every 30 seconds - a process repeated all day for more than a week.
Work on a 20-storey commercial building on 32nd Street in Al Khalidiyah, yards from family villas and a busy hotel, regularly reached 78dB during the early morning. Yousef Sulayman, a 33-year-old auditor working nearby, said: "In my work, you have to be very careful and look at a lot of details. If I get something wrong it can be a real problem. "All the time there is noise going on, always something in the back of your mind.
"I have to be very careful I do not make mistakes. I am very lucky I do not live in this area. This is too much." More and more building work can be expected in the coming years, with the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 saying the population of the city is expected to increase from 930,000 in 2007 to 3.1 million in 2030. Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority has said the number of hotel rooms in the city is also expected to increase from 12,000 to 25,000 by 2012. Most building projects stop at dusk, which means that even if residents have to deal with early starts on construction sites, they can usually get a decent night's sleep.
However, on a handful of sites, work can continue well into the night, to the point that sleep is widely disrupted. From this week, the prospect of more building work at night increased after the Ministry of Labour warned construction companies would be fined for making employees work through the midday heat. Until Aug 31, companies will be fined between Dh10,000 (US$2,700) and Dh30,000 if they do not give their workers breaks between 12.30pm and 3pm.
A report on noise and health produced by the WHO in 2004 said the consequences of sleep deprivation could include "poor performance at work, fatigue, memory difficulties, concentration problems, car accidents, psychiatric problems - depression, anxiety conditions, alcohol and other substance abuse, medical - cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal disorders, impaired immune system function and an increased risk of mortality".
While the WHO has produced a considerable amount of research into the effect of noise levels on sleep, little research has been carried out into the effects of a lack of sleep a day or two later. John Foster, a research support scientist at the Hearing Research Institute in Nottingham in the UK, said long-term exposure to loud noise could lead to tinnitus and, in some more severe cases, loss of hearing.
He added that continued lower noises over a long period of time could have an effect on the mental well-being of people near by. "Not getting a full night's sleep can basically leave you feeling as though you are heavily jet-lagged," said Dr Ron McCulloch, a British doctor based in Abu Dhabi. "If you consistently suffer broken sleep, and if noise continues for a long, long time, the effect on the body can be quite bad indeed.
"It is bad now, but it will get worse during Ramadan and particularly during the hot season, when no one will work during the day. "It is a perennial problem and there seems to be a feeling of 'If I'm awake, then everybody else should be awake too'. And I am sure it will get only worse over the next five to 10 years." The Estidama building guidelines produced by the Urban Planning Council, due to become the law that all developers must comply, says builders must take noise levels into consideration.
"The levels of background noise, privacy, and separation between particular types of spaces have important implications for the work environment of building occupants," say the guidelines. "Developers should produce measures to avoid or minimise noise pollution generated by identifying noise-producing activities/equipment and their relationship to neighbouring properties." Abu Dhabi Municipality said different building sites were given different times in which they were allowed to work, depending on the scale and location of the project.
It added that anyone with concerns over the noise of a particular building project could lodge a complaint. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org