Do you hear what I hear? The impact of environmental noise on human health
E-reader description: Image of a large commercial airplane flying very close overhead on a residential street near Heathrow Airport in London, UK Photo credit
Written by: Samantha Howard
I grew up in a small downtown neighbourhood in a large city, and it was never quiet. My bedroom was a block away from an industrial train track and a 6-lane north-south thoroughfare. I remember falling asleep to the soothing sounds of the train bumping along and ambulance sirens wailing. This experience, and louder ones, are extremely common in our ever-urbanizing world. Everything makes noise; constant construction, transportation, and economic activity has made environmental noise pollution a modern-day public health concern.
Environmental noise pollution is commonly understood as noise emitted from all sources that impact the general population5. Loud places are not only unpleasant and annoying, but also harmful to our health. One of the most common impacts of noise pollution is sleep disturbance, which we can experience without even being aware9. Our ears are always on, and even when we are sleeping, our bodies are reacting to noise5. Noise pollution results in fragmented and disturbed sleep, which can impact the following period awake9. Repeated instances of fragmented and disturbed sleep can result in reduced memory consolidation and productivity, as well as increased risk-taking behaviour9. This negatively affects mood and productivity in our daily lives.
Additionally, noise pollution contributes significantly to hearing loss and related disabilities. Noise induced hearing loss is the most common occupational disability in the USA, and it is estimated that 10% of the world’s population is regularly exposed 75-80db or noise, which is the threshold that causes noise induced hearing loss8, which can be extremely debilitating.
Furthermore, noise pollution has been linked to significant cognitive effects, especially in school aged children6. Both auditory tasks, such as speech perception and listening comprehension, and non-auditory tasks, such as short-term memory and reading, were impaired by excess noise exposure6. These effects may result in further cognitive impairments as children develop, so reducing noise exposure during critical years of brain development is essential9.
Noise pollution can also predispose to serious health impacts, predominantly cardiovascular complications. Studies have shown that broken and disturbed sleep, as well as continual exposure to noise, activates the body’s stress response, which in turn results in higher blood pressure.1,9. High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for ischemic heart disease, which causes 12.6% of deaths worldwide9. Some of these studies also showed that noise exposure at night as opposed to during the day increases risk of ischemic heart disease9.
Noise pollution is one of the least addressed environment pollutants, yet it is one of the most harmful. There are effective and enforced air and light pollution mitigation efforts, however noise pollution effects and impairments continue to grow. Noise pollution need to be taken seriously as a public health concern, and limitation of hours of allowable noise and caps on noise levels need to be put in place and enforced. Furthermore, acoustic setup of schools, as well as their proximity to louder locations such as airports should be taken into account. Addressing noise pollution, in addition to other environmental pollutants, is an environmentally positive change that will be beneficial for public health as well as quality of life.
1. Babisch, W. (2006). Transportation noise and cardiovascular risk: Updated Review and synthesis of epidemiological studies indicate that the evidence has increased . Noise & Health, 1-29.
2. Baguley, D., McFerran, D., & Hall, D. (2013). Tinnitus. The Lancet, 1600-1607.
3. Beaman, C. P. (2005). Auditory distraction from low‐intensity noise: a review of the consequences for learning and workplace environments. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1041-1064.
4. Goines, L., & Hagler, L. (2007). Noise Pollution: A Modem Plague . Southern Medical Journal, 287-294.
5. Housley , G., & Burgess, M. (n.d). Health effects of environmental noise pollution. Retrieved from Australian Academy of Science: https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/health-effects-environmental-noise-pollution
6. Klatte, M., Bergstrom, K., & Lachmann, T. (2013). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children . Frontiers in Psychology, 1-6.
7. Owen, D. (2019). Is Noise Pollution the Next Big Public-Health Crisis? . The New Yorker.
8. The Lancet Editorial. (2014). Sound advice for public health. The Lancet, 1270.
9. WHO Regional Office for Europe. (2011). Burden of disease from environmental noise – Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe . Copenhagen: World Health Orgnaization.