Sound directly evokes emotions and actions: one of the purposes of hearing is to alert and warn us about possible danger. However, when the sound becomes too loud or lasts too long, it can cause irritation and stress, becoming noise pollution.
Noise pollution is defined by the WHO as the “unwanted or harmful outdoor sound created by human activities, including noise from road, rail, airports and from industrial sites.” It’s the excess of sound that alters the normal conditions of the environment in a certain area. Although noise does not accumulate, move, or last over time like other types of pollution, it can also cause great damage to people’s quality of life if it is not well or adequately controlled.
The two types of noise pollution: natural and human-created.
Natural noise pollution refers to the sounds of animals and natural calamities; however, their effects are minimal and do not present major damage to human hearing. On the other hand, noise pollution created by man-made sources has negative effects on our health.
Man-made noise pollution refers to the excess of noise that alters the normal conditions of the environment. The noises caused by human activities such as traffic, industries, leisure facilities, airplanes, and ships, among others, can produce negative effects on the auditory, physical, and mental health of human beings.
Noise pollution affects the environment
A study from 2019 demonstrates that noise pollution made by human activities also affects our environment and pollutes biodiversity.
It disrupts the lives of birds, whales, and other creatures. Animals use sounds for many reasons including navigating, finding food, attracting mates, and avoiding predators. Yet, noise pollution makes it difficult for them to accomplish these tasks, which affects their ability to survive.
Did you know that sound travels rapidly through the water — four times faster than through air? The impact of underwater noise pollution is more painful than anything else for animals. Most marine animals are alarmed by strange sounds and noise, triggering stress and impairing the animals’ immune system, which makes them more susceptible to illness. This also disrupts normal communication between animals, which can cause changes in their diving or migration patterns.
What group is most affected in my community?
According to the European Environment Agency, the following population sectors may be disproportionately affected by noise.
- Elderly adults
- Shift workers
- People with pre-existing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease
- People considered to be noise sensitive
- Lower socio-economic groups that may be exposed to higher levels of noise
How does noise pollution affect the body and brain?
Noise pollution can have a number of negative effects on our health. It’s important to be aware of its impact and how it affects our overall wellbeing. Noise exposure can cause sleep disturbances, while daytime noise exposure brings about annoyance and cognitive impairment.
Here are some areas that can affect it:
- Hearing loss: Our ears are designed to hear sound up to 1 decibel or dB (a logarithmic unit used to measure sound level), but if our ears are exposed to sounds 85 dB or above, it can damage the nerves in our ears. Traffic noise typically ranges from 70 to 80 dB. A drilling machine produces between 90 and 94 dB and hammer drills produce over 100 dB.
- Stress: According to Noise and Health, noise pollution can trigger chronic stress and high levels of stress hormones, which are related to depression and anxiety.
- Sleep quality: Even when you sleep, your brain is always monitoring danger signals. For this reason, loud noises or unwanted sounds can trigger anxiety or stress and can cause fatigue from lack of sleep.
- Cardiovascular disorders: Traffic noise at night can cause sleep fragmentation, potentially leading to high levels of stress. Consequently, these factors can facilitate the development of vascular dysfunction and arterial hypertension, which can increase cardiovascular risk. Although the risk increases as you get older, studies confirm that children can also suffer from cardiovascular disorders. In the same study, it’s shown that not all people exposed to noise experience cardiovascular disorders; however, noise pollution is likely to affect the health of susceptible individuals when combined with other stressors, such as work pressure and population density.
- Cognitive impairment: Noise is linked to an increased likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. It can affect performance either by impairing information processing or causing changes in strategic responses. Noise pollution increases the level of general alertness and attention; in some cases our memory performance can be affected and performance precision reduced.
Action plans for noise control
Being aware of how to avoid or reduce noise pollution can be a great start to improving your current living conditions as well as your health. For the betterment of our health and environment, there are some small steps you may take to reduce it:
- Set the volume of your TV, video games, and radio to a level where it is audible enough only for you.
- Do not honk unnecessarily, especially when passing by schools or hospitals.
- Recycle, reduce, and REPAIR! Consider the possibility of replacing noisy household items or old appliances, vehicles, or other items that produce a lot of noise.
- If you’re not using your electrical appliances, turn them off. This contributes to overall noise levels in the home.
- If the noise comes from outside of your house, you may want to think about soundproofing your space. Adding insulation strategically around the home can help muffle sounds from other rooms, neighbors, or outside. Rugs, carpets, and curtains may also help.
- If loud noise is unavoidable, use ear protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs, to reduce its impact.