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ARTICLES Table of Contents   
Year : 2004  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 24  |  Page : 51-62
Protection goals for residents in the vicinity of civil airports

1 Institute for Occupational Physiology at Dortmund University, Dortmund, Fed. Rep, Germany
2 Institute and Outpatients Clinic for Occupational and Social Medicine, Technical University of Dresden, Fed. Rep, Germany
3 Institute for Occupational and Social Medicine, University of Dusseldorf, Fed. Rep, Germany
4 Institute for Physiology and Experimental Pathophysiology, University of Erlangen, Fed. Rep, Germany

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Based on extensive and detailed reviews the present paper suggests evaluation criteria for aircraft noise for the prediction of noise effects and for the protection of residents living in the vicinity of (newly constructed or extended) civil airports. The protection concept provides graded evaluation criteria: Critical loads indicate noise loads that shall be tolerated only exceptionally during a limited time. Protection Guides are central evaluation criteria for taking actions to reduce noise immission. Threshold values inform about measurable physiological and psychological reactions due to noise exposures where long term adverse health effects are not expected. Evaluation criteria are provided for various protection goals, for hearing, communication and sleep, for the avoidance of annoyance and of suspected cardiovascular diseases. As protection of the residents is understood as a dynamic process, these criteria must be repeatedly tested and adapted to new scientific findings.

Keywords: noise effects, airport, protection goals, evaluation criteria

How to cite this article:
Griefahn B, Scheuch K, Jansen G, Spreng M. Protection goals for residents in the vicinity of civil airports. Noise Health 2004;6:51-62

How to cite this URL:
Griefahn B, Scheuch K, Jansen G, Spreng M. Protection goals for residents in the vicinity of civil airports. Noise Health [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 Mar 27];6:51-62. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2004/6/24/51/31655

  Introduction Top

Contrary to the visual system the hearing system does not presuppose directed attention and is designed as a permanently working alarm system which is able to perceive acoustic information at any time, even during sleep, to analyze them and to cause the organism to respond adequately. Noise interferes with various activities and is the most annoying environmental pollutant.

Apart from aural effects noise evokes various extra-aural effects that are - applying functional and temporal criteria - reasonably and sufficiently categorized as follows:

* Primary effects are disturbances of communication, of sleep, and of autonomous functions, that occur during exposure periods. They are recorded as acute effects shortly after noise onset (e.g. awakenings) and/or as cumulative effects i.e. acute responses aggregated over a defined exposure period (e.g. overnight excretion of stress hormones).

* Secondary effects, i.e. annoyance and impaired performance are the consequences of primary effects. They occur already during or even after the end of the exposure period (e.g. fatigue after noise-induced sleep disturbances).

* Long-term effects, i.e. multi-factorial chronic diseases, chronic annoyance, and permanent behavioral alterations are suspected to be (partly) caused by repetitively evoked primary and secondary noise effects. The hypothesized pathways are depicted in [Figure - 1].

Apart from hearing loss and from the masking of acoustic information, noise effects are non­specific, meaning that other environmental stressors cause the same effects. Causal relationships are therefore difficult and even impossible to determine, the more the greater the time lag between the onset of noise exposure and the manifestation of an effect in question.

Acute reactions that occur shortly after stimulus onset (e.g. awakenings) are obviously evoked by noise and their registration is most appropriate for the evaluation of distinct (intermittent) noise events. There are, however, already some doubts concerning the causal relations for cumulative responses as the non-specific noise effects cannot be separated from the responses to non­acoustic stimuli that occur also during the observation period and which evoke similar effects (e.g. increased excretion of stress hormones). The uncertainty about causal linkages is even greater for the secondary effects whereas the relations between noise exposure and the suspected health disorders remain on the level of hypotheses (HCN 1999, Porter et al. 1998). Adopting, however, the WHO definition (WHO 1968-1969) of health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity' the extra-aural effects of noise, the impairments of rest and sleep, of communication, psychosocial well-being, and performance are classified as health effects (Porter et al. 2000).

  Objectives Top

Concerning transportation noise Miedema and Vos (1998) have, based on extensive meta-ana­lyses, shown that aircraft noise annoys the most and rail noise the least[Figure - 2] and this is true for 'Nighttime Annoyance' as well (HCN 1999). The outstanding significance of aircraft noise is explained by its irregular occurrence, its high levels and its intrusion from above, thus preventing an easy escape by moving to the opposite side of the house as an effective strategy against the impact of noise emitted from surface transportation. Accordingly, the largest studies on the effects of noise concerned aircraft noise and many countries have established special regulations that prescribe restrictions for settlement and noise abatement measures such as double glazing as soon as noise loads exceed a prescribed limit. But substantially altered noise scenarios (decreased noise emission by individual aircraft but increased number of flights) and new scientific findings claim for a revision of the respective regulations. These regulations vary considerably between and even within one and the same country. The differences between countries concern among others the definition of daytime and nighttime and noise metrics. In some countries the single noise events are described by the maximum level (Lmax) in other countries by the Sound Exposure level (SEL). Concerning integrated noise metrics a large number of metrics are in use, among them for example the Equivalent Noise Level (L eq ), the Noise and Number Index (NNI), and the Kosten Index, which makes comparisons difficult. Differences within one and the same country result from medical expert's opinions that are required whenever a new airport is planned or traffic density is planned to be increased above the existing permission. The independent experts then take into account the special situation at the individual airport as well as new scientific findings.

Based on extensive reviews of the literature the present paper suggests evaluation criteria for various protection goals, for the primary effects on communication, on sleep and on autonomous functions, for annoyance as the secondary effect and eventually for the speculated long-term effects on health. These criteria exceed the guidelines of the WHO (Berglund et al. 1999). But the latter are general recommendations whereas the present paper refers exclusively to the special situation at airports and presents just tolerable limits for the avoidance of adverse effects. The authors support nonetheless the WHO guidelines which agree more or less with the threshold values given in [Table - 1] as a long ­term goal.

The following graded evaluation criteria are considered as appropriate:

Critical loads. As health hazards are no longer excluded, any excess of these loads forces the establishment of noise abatement measures. These loads shall be tolerated only as an exception during a limited time.

Protection guides. Excess of these noise loads gives reason for counter measures. Their undercut is expected to exclude health hazards for the average person, whereas impairments may be still observed in sensitive groups. Threshold values cause significant effects, that do not bear a pathogenic risk in the long run. Nevertheless, to increase the quality of live these values constitute a long-term goal.

As the protection of the residents is understood as a dynamic process, the evaluation criteria must be repeatedly tested and - if necessary - adapted to new scientific findings. Concerning noise metrics it is suggested to use the maximum noise levels (Lmax) for the assessment of individual (intermittent) noise events and to calculate of the equivalent noise level while using the equivalence parameter q = 3 (L eq3 ) for time periods. The L eq is still the most widespread measure, relatively easy to calculate, and, within limits, comparable with other measures. For both, the Leq3 and the Lmax, it is recommended to weigh the frequencies with the A-filter and the time constant with 'slow'.

The evaluation criteria separate between daytime (6-22 h) and nighttime (22-6 h). A further division of the night was regarded as appropriate due to a clear decrease of sleep depth during the night. A few papers hint to an increased sensitivity during the shoulder hours particularly in the evening, but due to an insufficient data base a subdivision of the daytime was regarded as premature. [Table - 1] summarizes the evaluation criteria for various protection goals.

  Evaluation criteria for aural effects Top

The effects of noise on hearing acuity were most extensively studied, as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the only disease that is unequivocally and mono-causally related to the impact of noise and is acknowledged as an occupational disease in many countries. Reliable population based dose-response curves are provided in ISO 1999 (ISO 1999). Based on 8 hours exposure per day this standard allows the prediction of NIHL under consideration of equivalent noise levels, lifetime exposure (in years), age, and gender.

Exposure periods of residents in the vicinity of airports are, in the worst case, 24 hours a day. For this exposure period the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has extrapolated an equi­valent noise level of 75 dBA, that is regarded as a limit below which hearing damage is not expected (Siervogel and Roche 1982).

The risk of hearing damage depends also on the maximum levels, in particular on the rise time. An increase of 60 to 80 dBA per second is regarded as critical, however, scarcely reached by non-military aircraft. Thus, hearing damages are unlikely for the residents living in the vicinity of civil airports.

  Evaluation criteria for extra-aural effects Top

Protection goals for primary effects


Due to its overwhelming significance for mental and social development, the ability to communicate is almost routinely concerned in large social surveys on noise-induced annoyance (which results to a considerable degree from disturbed communication). Research in the laboratory concerns the determination of signal­-to-noise ratios that are required for communication and on the behavior of speakers and listeners in various acoustical situations (Lazarus 1989).

Acoustic communication can be disturbed by at least 3 mechanisms:

• Masking: Masking is a purely physical phenomenon and a specific noise effect. Noise interferes with the relevant acoustic information which then becomes undetectable for the listener.

• Distraction: Various noises, particularly those with high information content (speech, music etc.) distract attention. Thus, the relevant acoustic information, that is otherwise well detectable is no longer consciously perceived.

• Impaired hearing: The detection of relevant acoustic information becomes difficult in case of hearing loss of any reason.

The consequences of impaired communication are manifold. Annoyance is almost unavoidable if face-to-face or telephone conversations are disturbed by environmental noise thus increasing the effort of the speaker and of the hearer and causing repeated questions and answers. Annoyance is most likely in case of interrupted one-way communication, where, for instance, the news provided by radio or television are masked and then definitely lost. In the long run, noisy environments may influence communication behavior and cause people to use short and clipped speech.

Performance is impaired if task-relevant (verbal and non-verbal) acoustic information is no longer or only partly perceived. Even dramatic consequences are possible, as for instance accidents in case that warning signals are masked.

Concerning the evaluation criteria presented in [Table - 1] a good to perfect quality of communi­cation is recommended indoors, whereas a sufficient quality can be tolerated outdoors. Maximum levels are not provided due to an insufficient database.


Sleep is structured by a sequence of 4 to 6 cycles of 90 to 100 minutes each, that are characterized by increasing and decreasing sleep depth and that are terminated by REM-sleep where bursts of rapid eye movements occur. Due to the undisputed restorative function of sleep, its disturbances are regarded as the most deleterious effects of noise.

Sleep disturbances are defined as measurable and/or as subjectively experienced deviations from the usual or from the desired sleep behavior. Primary effects that occur during bedtime are prolonged sleep latencies, intermittent and premature awakenings, sleep stage changes, body movements, autonomous responses etc. The total time awake and/or in flat sleep increases at the expense of deep sleep and/or of REM sleep. Secondary effects such as decreases of self-estimated sleep quality, mood, and performance are expected after one or after several disturbed nights.

The thresholds and the extents of noise-induced sleep disturbances depend on acoustical features, personal characteristics and on environmental conditions.

Information content. The brain is able to perceive and to recognize the significance of external stimuli even while asleep and to cause the organism to respond adequately. Thus, unfamiliar noises and those which are significant for an individual disturb more than familiar and less significant sounds. The individual significance of a given stimulus may alter over time and an adequate response occurs not before a few repetitions. Thus sensitization as well as habituation are possible with time. Habituation prevails but is, as a rule, limited as indicated by field experiments where long-term residents in noisy areas still wake up more often, have less deep sleep or less REM sleep, assess their sleep quality as worse, perform less in the morning and benefit from sound attenuation (as achieved by ear plugs, sound absorbing windows, tunnels, etc. (Eberhardt and Akselsson 1987, Griefahn and Gros 1986, Jurriens et al. 1983, Ohrstrom 2001, Ohrstrom et al. 1998)).

Acoustic features. The probability and the extent of noise-induced sleep disturbances, increase with maximum noise levels (respectively with emergences). Awakenings and body movements induced by noise become more frequent with the number of stimuli (partly at the expense of spontaneous awakenings and body movements), where the risk of these responses to an individual stimulus decreases. This explains why people are less disturbed by rather continuous noises than by intermittent noises. The effects of the latter are better assessed by the maximum noise level where the equivalent noise level might be suitable for rather continuous noises (Basner et al. 2001). (The most recent review on this topic is provided by Miedema et al. (2002)).

Individual characteristics. Gender has no influence on the susceptibility to noise, but sleep disturbances increase with age (Griefahn 1985). Contrary to a common belief, children are about 10 dBA less sensitive than adults (Eberhardt 1990, Kahn 2002). Several personality traits such as self-estimated sensitivity to noise and neuroticism are associated with the probability and the extent of noise-induced responses.

Situational characteristics. The thresholds of noise-induced responses are inversely related to sleep depth that alters periodically during the night and becomes successively flatter towards the morning (Griefahn 1985), meaning that noise-induced awakenings are more likely in the late than in the early night. Sleep during the day (nightworkers) is usually more affected as noise levels are then 8 to 15 dBA higher and interspersed with meaningful and thus more disturbing noises (children, music etc.).

An important situational condition is the sleeping environment. Data pooled from 21 investigations have accordingly shown much smaller effects in the field than in the laboratory (Pearsons et al. 1995). The possible reasons are in the first place habituation (Finegold 1993) and the simultaneous influence of other acoustic and non-acoustic stimuli that modify or mask the responses to noise.

Evaluation criteria, critical noise loads. Concerning intermittent noises, 2 models allow the calculation of noise-and-number combinations that cause the same predefined admissible risk (Griefahn 1992, Spreng 2002). The evaluation criteria suggested here base on a physiological model that refers to the admissible noise-induced release of cortisol [Figure - 3] (Spreng 2002)). It was chosen as the respective results match almost perfectly the noise-and­number relation determined for awakenings in the largest study ever done on the effects of aircraft noise (Basner et al. 2001).

To protect residents in the vicinity of airports the undoubtedly best solution is the avoidance of any noise immission during the night. If this is not achievable, it is suggested to concentrate air traffic to the less sensitive first part of the night, in particular as disturbances experienced during this period can be compensated in the following quieter section of the night [Table - 1], two-phase model) (Griefahn 1977, Maschke 1992). In case that traffic density cannot be reduced adequately in the second part of the night, it is recommended to lower the maximum levels even within the first part as compensations are no longer possible thereafter [Table - 1], one-phase model).

Autonomous responses

Numerous experimental studies were performed to identify and to quantify the great variety of autonomous responses such as acceleration of heart rate, increase of peripheral resistance, elevation of blood pressure and an elevated release of stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine). These acute responses occur immediately after noise onset; they are non­specific and they are evoked by various other environmental stimuli as well.

The release and excretion of stress hormones are usually determined as cumulative responses over defined exposure periods (i.e. a whole night). But the amount that is exclusively related to the impact of noise cannot be quantified as these responses are also evoked by other stimuli that occur during the sampling period.

The cardiovascular responses are clearly related to the acoustic parameters of noise (e. g. noise level, bandwidth) but the thresholds and the respective dose-effect curves are modified by simultaneously acting environmental agents, by personal characteristics (age), and altering tension of the sympathetic nervous system during the day. Concerning the latter, the thresholds for autonomous responses are by 10 dBA lower during sleep than during awake.

These responses are primarily normal physiological responses of the organism to its environment. But as they do not habituate, they are suspected to contribute eventually to the genesis of multi-factorial chronic diseases, particularly of cardiovascular diseases (hypertension, ischaemic heart diseases, etc.). Experimental data suggest that a maximum level of 90 dBA shall not be exceeded [Table - 1].

Protection goals for secondary effects


Performance might be affected by four mechanisms.

* Arousals: Optimal performance presupposes a certain arousal level that might vary with the type of a task. Thus, performance is related to noise loads by an inversely u-shaped function indicating impairments in extremely quiet as well as in loud environments.

• Masking: Tasks that presuppose the perception of acoustic information or which are

• least facilitated by acoustic signals become difficult and even impossible if this information is masked.

• Distraction: Various noises, particularly those with high information content (speech, music etc.), distract attention and performance degrades.

• Noise-induced sleep disturbances may degrade the ability to concentrate on a task.

Noise effects on performance reported so far are highly controversial. Impairments, no alterations and even improvements were found. The latter finding occurs if more effort is spent to prevent possible impairments as indicated by increased heart rates or elevated releases and excretions of stress hormones (Smith and Nutt 1996, Taffalla and Evans 1997).

The effects on performance depend far-reaching on the task itself. Complicated and demanding tasks, those which presuppose creativity and a great memory capacity and which are executed over a long time are most likely impaired (Enmarker et al. 1998).

The respective studies are predominantly performed in the lab, first with artificial and continuous white or pink noises. They have shown that the extent of the effects are related to the noise levels. Recently performed studies have, however, shown that cumulative noise measures, as for instance the equivalent noise level are almost irrelevant for usual noises that are characterized by frequent changes in levels and frequencies. Speech was identified as most bothersome, followed by transportation noise, where air traffic disturbs most and rail traffic the least (Boyle and Coltheart 1996).

Children are particularly challenged during language acquisition and are most vulnerable during that period. In noisy environments they learn to tune out or to ignore auditory stimuli and seem to be more resistant to auditory distraction, but this concerns relevant and irrelevant noises as well. Aircraft noise was found to impair attention, speech, reading, long-term memory, and complex information processing (Evans and Maxwell 1997, Hygge et al. 1998) and these effects increase with the duration of noise exposure and - as shown by a preliminary evaluation of the extended RANCH study (Stansfeld et al. 2003) - with the equivalent noise level. The present knowledge is, however, still insufficient for the derivation of a critical load.


Annoyance is the most frequently ascertained effect of noise. Annoyance in general is any feeling of resentment, displeasure, discomfort and irritation when external stimuli intrude into someone's thoughts and moods or interfere with activities. Noise annoys when it is not considered to fit with current intentions which is most frequently the case when people communicate and when they (try to) sleep.

Within the last 5-6 decades more than 500 social surveys were completed using more or less extensive personal or rather short telephone interviews or mailed questionnaires (Fields 2001). As the results from various studies are often difficult or even impossible to compare, guidelines for the reporting of social surveys and 2 shared annoyance questions were developed to increase the comparability of studies even if executed in different cultures and with different languages. They facilitate the accumulation of the data for common analyses (Fields et al. 1998).

Noise is felt as a severe impairment of the quality of life and causes residents in the vicinity of airports or along major roads and railway tracks to protest and even to form pressure groups, as soon as the initiation or the extension of the respective traffic becomes known. People exposed to high aircraft noise may alter their behavior. They close their windows more often, they use terraces, gardens and balconies less often and reduce their social activities (going out, having guests etc.).

Concerning transportation, aircraft noise appears to be most annoying and rail noise the least [Figure - 2] (Miedema 1998, Miedema and Vos 1998)). Annoyance is prone to habituation but to sensitization as well where among others the attitude and the context where noise occurs are significant.

Annoyance is undoubtedly related to noise load. Where the correlations between individual noise load and individual annoyance are relatively low, population based means provide significant correlations (Job 1988) indicating that annoyance is modified by a large variety of non­acoustic influences, where behavioral variables such as fear related to the noise source, the conviction that authorities do not properly combat the noise and individual noise sensitivity are most important, whereas demographic variables are of minor significance (age, gender, income, education, home-ownership, etc.) (Fields 1994).

The evaluation criteria presented in [Table - 1] refer to the most common criterion, according to which aircraft noise is regarded as intolerable if 25 to 28% of the people concerned are highly annoyed. Maximum values are not suggested as the data base provided by the literature is too weak. As annoyance is mainly determined by the outdoor levels and far less by indoor levels [Table - 1] contains only outdoor levels.

Protection goals for long-term effects on health

Frequently evoked primary and secondary responses are tolerated for a while and the people concerned develop a great variety of coping strategies. In the long run, however, in case of chronic noise exposure these responses are supposed to contribute to the genesis of multi­factorial chronic diseases and to accelerate their manifestation.

This hypothesis was examined with many epidemiological studies on cardiovascular diseases (hypertension, ischaemic heart diseases) and cardiovascular risks (elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol). A few studies dealt with the immune system, with reproduction (foetal development), and with sick leave from work.

The studies were reviewed under different aspects. The contradictory results led to the assumption that the pathogenic impact of noise presupposes a particular individual or situational vulnerability. It was hypothesized that the primary responses are decisive for the long-term effects on health and that noises with a high emotional content evoke stronger responses and contribute more to health effects than neutral noises (Griefahn 1990). The accordingly performed comparison of studies on occupational noises where the emotional strain is usually low with studies on transportation noises, that cause emotional responses during leisure time, supports the suspicion that the emotional content of a noise is significant for the long-term effects.

Reports on occupational noise indicate that levels of more than 80 dBA are associated with a higher risk for hypertension and of more than 90 dBA with other cardiovascular findings (accelerated and irregular heart rate, ECG abnormalities, decreased blood supply to the myocardium, etc. (HCN 1999, Passchier­Vermeer 1993)). Concerning transportation noise equivalent noise levels exceeding 70 dBA are suspected to contribute to the genesis of hypertension and levels between 65 and 70 dBA to ischaemic heart diseases (Babisch 1998). Some papers (HCN 1999, Passchier-Vermeer 1993) consider the evidence for causal relationships as sufficient, others (Job 1993, Porter et al. 1998 2000, Thompson 1996) stated that well controlled studies are rare and that causal linkages with long-term health effects have not yet been proved.

Apart from cardiovascular diseases it is assumed that people daily exposed to noise are more susceptible to the development of psychiatric disorders, to effects on the immune system, to other diseases and symptoms such as common colds and to digestive problems. The respective investigations are, however, inconclusive as they were again poorly designed and did not sufficiently take into account possible confounders. The same has to be stated for the effects on the unborn child, whether the pregnant women were exposed to environmental or to occupational noise (HCN 1994, Job 1996, Passchier-Vermeer 1993).

Though it is not possible at this time to determine a limit above which the primary reactions become pathogenic and above which chronic health disorders are expected, evaluation criteria presented in [Table - 1] indicate values above which long-term health effects cannot be excluded anymore.

  Protection Goal: Persons/areas with special needs Top

The protection goals given above refer to the average person. Their establishment is expected to improve the situation for everybody. But there are persons and situations where additional measures are required. [Table - 2] suggests indoor levels for a few institutions with special needs.

Lower limits are appropriate for kindergartens to provide a perfect verbal communication which is essential during language acquisition and to allow undisturbed sleep in the afternoon. In schools a good communication is required as well.

Ill people are generally thought to be more vulnerable against the impact of noise. But there are only a few papers dealing with that problem. Research on this topic is difficult due to the various causes of increased sensitivity, which might concern different functions/activities, i.e. only communication, only the autonomous nervous system or only sleep. Thus the criteria presented for hospitals are not as well secured as the data presented in [Table - 1]. They provide a perfect communication and a perfect acoustic environment for diagnostic measures (auscultation) and allow an undisturbed sleep which is thought to be of particular importance for convalescence.

Hearing ability decreases with age and makes communication difficult, particularly in case of environmental noise. Again, the indoor equivalent levels are suggested to provide good communication. Lower levels are suggested for the night, as older people are more easily disturbed by noise than younger persons.

  Conclusions Top

The central goal of the present paper is to protect the residents in the vicinity of airports against the deleterious effects of noise. Based on the literature graded evaluation criteria were derived for various protection goals. These criteria exceed the guidelines of the WHO (Berglund et al. 1999). The latter are general recommendations, which are - apart from a complete cessation of air traffic - impossible to achieve now. The present paper refers exclusively to the special situation at airports and presents just tolerable limits for the avoidance of adverse effects.

The protection of the residents is understood as a dynamic process, meaning that the evaluation criteria must be repeatedly tested and - if necessary - adapted to new scientific findings. In addition, to increase the quality of life, it is recommended ever to apply the best noise reduction measurements provided by technical development. Thus the WHO-guidelines constitute a long-term goal.

The establishment of limits is the task of politicians who might also prescribe the appropriate tools. The most common measure is the installation of sound-insulating windows, which is in the authors' opinion only acceptable as a transitory measure. Noise must be reduced at its source and this is well recognized as demonstrated by extended studies that aim at the global reduction of noise while adopting a multidisciplinary and multicenter approach. These are for instance the 'Quiet Traffic' Study in Germany and the project 'Sound Engineering For Aircraft' (SEFA) supported by the European Union.[43]

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Correspondence Address:
B Griefahn
Institute for Occupational Physiology at Dortmund University, Ardeyst. 67, D-44139 Dortmund, Fed. Rep.
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