Despite the fact that the health effects of noise on most of the earth's population are demonstrably serious, noise pollution continues to be largely ignored by the environmental agencies, world governments, and most of the individuals it is harming. Second hand smoke earned a long, vocal, and eventually effective campaign to raise awareness and eventually create change. Second hand noise needs such a campaign.
Noise pollution is damaging our hearing, stressing us out, contributing to heart disease and interfering with our ability to sleep, concentrate, and be productive. It has proven to interfere with childrens' ability to learn. People who suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness - from depression to schizophrenia - suffer heightened symptoms when exposure to noise is chronic, which is the case in most cities, areas adjacent to highways or near airports, in mixed-use communities with industrial plants and night clubs intermingled with residential neighborhoods.
Below is an article by A.J. Jacobs excerpted from the Wall Street Journal about his recent realization of the seriousness of noise pollution's damage to our hearing and health. The article describes an epiphany-like awareness of the effects of continual noise when it occurs to him that his three small sons, adorable noise-makers in their own right - are facing lifelong exposure to unhealthy noise levels, without even leaving their home. Jacobs makes many excellent observations in the article, but my favorite really hit home:
"A decibel level above 85—the sound of a lawn mower—can cause permanent hearing loss. My son's tantrum over missing the last five minutes of "Bubble Guppies" registered at 91, a subway car as it entered the station hit 110."
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Unsafe
Noise is one of the great neglected health hazards of our time - the second hand smoke of our ears.
By A.J. Jacobs
My wife and I recently took our three sons to Benihana for dinner. It's their favorite restaurant, thanks to the unbeatable combination of airborne food and machete-size knives.
But what I noticed was the noise: the hiss of the soy sauce on the grill, the escalating chatter of the crowd—and our young sons, who are loud beyond comprehension. Each carried a little plastic trumpet from a birthday party, so it was like being followed around by our own private South African soccer game. We finally pried the ghastly instruments from their hands.
I've started to become aware of just how loud our world is. Spend an hour listening. The chirping text messages, the droning airplanes, the flatulent trucks,the howling cable pundits, the chiming MacBooks.
And noise is no minor nuisance. It is one of the great underappreciated health hazards of our time - the second hand smoke of our times.
Noise pollution doesn't get the attention of A-list diseases, but there are a few crusaders raising their voices against the onslaught. One of them is Arline Bronzaft. a professor emeritus at the City University of New York.
What's the problem with this high-decibel world? "The most obvious one is hearing loss," Dr. Bronzaft says. Some 26 million adults are walking around with noise-induced hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Noise also has a surprisingly potent effect on our stress level, cardiovascular system and concentration. In Paleo times, a loud noise signaled a threat, so noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure.
A University of British Columbia review of 6,300 people who work in noisy jobs found that they suffer two to three times more heart problems than those who work in quiet settings. A former World Health Organization official estimates (with a bit of alarmism) that noise-induced strain may cause 45,000 deadly heart attacks a year.
Noise also wreaks havoc on the brain. Dr. Bronzaft conducted a landmark study at a public school in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, published in the journal Environment and Behavior in 1975. Some of the classrooms directly faced an elevated subway track. Every five minutes the students heard a train rattle by. Other classrooms were tucked on the opposite side of the building, away from the noise. The difference? By the sixth grade, the kids on the noisy side were nearly a year behind. Since then, her conclusions about the effects of noise on concentration have been backed up by a pile of other studies, on both students and adults.
After meeting Dr. Bronzaft, I pledged to turn down the volume on my own life. I started in my kids' room. I dug out all of their beeping, yammering electronic toys and spent a half-hour putting masking tape over the plastic speakers
| Getty Images
Just how loud is that tantrum? The decibel meter says: ouch.
"What are you doing, Daddy?" asked my son Zane. "Just fixing the broken toys," I half-lied. It was a smashing success, at least from my point of view. You can still hear "Chicken Dance Elmo" demand that we "flap our wings," but he sounds like he's submerged in a bathtub, which is what I'd really like to do to him.
Next up, ear protection. I tried rubber earplugs for a week, but I found them uncomfortable, so I shelled out for Bose noise-canceling headphones. On a plane trip to Atlanta, I slipped them over my ears, clicked the power switch and…well, the world didn't go silent. But the headphones did turn the volume down from a 10 to a 7. Life took on a sort of dreamy, uterine feel.
In the next few weeks, I started to wear my headphones more and more—big silver-and-black earmuffs. My wife, Julie, has taken to calling me Lionel Richie, because I look like I just walked out of the recording studio for "We Are the World." She remains skeptical, though, so to prove just how perilously loud our lives are, I ordered a decibel meter that I now take everywhere.
A decibel level above 85—the sound of a lawn mower—can cause permanent hearing loss. My son's tantrum over missing the last five minutes of "Bubble Guppies" registered at 91, a subway car as it entered the station hit 110.
I tried to get a reading in an argument with Julie about whether or not I misplaced her Time magazine, but when I put the decibel meter near her mouth, she refused to talk. As the physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered about the quantum world, taking measurements can mess with reality.
By A.J. Jacobs, Wall Street Journal, 3/24/2012.
—Adapted from "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection" by A.J. Jacobs, out in early April from Simon & Schuster.
People everywhere are subjected to ambient noise from construction equipment, air traffic, noisy neighbors, barking dogs, road traffic and a multitude of sources that contribute to serious noise-related health problems.
In the last U.S. Census report, Americans named noise as the number one problem in neighborhoods. Of the households surveyed, 11.3-percent stated that street or traffic noise was bothersome, and 4.4-percent said that the noise problems in their neighborhood were so bad, they wanted to move. More Americans are bothered by noise than by crime, odors and other problems listed under "other bothersome conditions."
News agencies including CNN, the BBC and others are beginning to take a serious look at the health ramifications of noise in our everyday lives. Although many people might argue that humans have become conditioned to suppress noise, defined as “unwanted sound,” it can actually cause a physical response at a conscious or subconscious level that is often detrimental to the human body. In fact, most of us do not consciously register all the noise our bodies absorb every day, yet our well-being is being seriously damaged by modern sound. Here are five things about sound and health that you may not know:
1.) You are a chord. This is obvious from physics, though it's admittedly somewhat metaphorical to call the combined rhythms and vibrations within a human being a chord, which we usually understand to be an aesthetically pleasant audible collection of tones. But "the fundamental characteristic of nature is periodic functioning in frequency, or musical pitch," according to C.T. Eagle. Matter is vibrating energy; therefore, we are a collection of vibrations of many kinds, which can be considered a chord.
2.) One definition of health is when the chord is in complete harmony. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" which opens at least three dimensions to the concept.
3.) We see one octave; we hear ten. An octave is a doubling in frequency. The visual spectrum in frequency terms is 400-790 THz, so it's just under one octave. Humans with great hearing can hear from 20 Hz to 20 KHz, which is ten octaves.
4.) Noise harms and even kills. There is now a wealth of evidence about the harmful effect of noise, and yet most people still consider noise a local matter, not the major global issue it has become.
According to the European Union, “Around 20-percent of Europe’s (approximately 80 million people) suffer from noise levels that scientists and health experts consider to be unacceptable – that is, levels where most people become annoyed, where sleep is disturbed and where adverse health effects are to be feared. An additional 170 million citizens are living in so-called 'grey areas' where the noise levels are such to cause serious annoyance during the daytime."
The World Health Organization (WHO) says "Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health."
The WHO is also the source for the startling statistic about noise killing 200,000 people a year. Its findings (LARES report) estimate that 3 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease result from long-term exposure to noise. With 7 million deaths a year globally, that means 210,000 people are dying of noise every year.
The cost of noise to society is astronomical. The EU again: "Present economic estimates of the annual damage in the EU due to environmental noise range from EUR 13 billion to 38 billion. Elements that contribute are a reduction of housing prices, medical costs, reduced possibilities of land use and cost of lost labor days." (Future Noise Policy European Commission Green Paper 1996).
Then there is the effect of noise on social behavior. The U.S. report "Noise and its effects" (Administrative Conference of the United States, Alice Suter, 1991) says: "Even moderate noise levels can increase anxiety, decrease the incidence of helping behavior, and increase the risk of hostile behavior in experimental subjects. These effects may, to some extent, help explain the "dehumanization" of today's urban environment."
Excerpted from a CNN 2010 Opinion article from 10/10/2010 by Julian Treasure, the author of "Sound Business."
Edward L. Sadowsky of Long Island City complains that officials have not muffled the fans in a building visible from his 39th floor apartment. Below: The fans seen from Sadowsdky's window.
In New York City, industrial fans that clean subway airspace when workers are making repairs are driving people to distraction – and sleepless nights. In fact, for some residents of Queens the noise from the fans makes sleep virtually impossible.
They have been in place for decades and sound like a giant rattle shaken at great speeds, unrelentingly and with no set pattern. One weekend they might run for just an hour, the next weekend for 24 hours straight. At a subsidized housing complex for the elderly that sits right next to the fans, the sound became so intense and lasted so long, people approached the building’s superintendent crying because the noise prevented them from sleeping.
The fans are necessary for maintenance crews to do their jobs. However, the sound that one neighbor compares to “a blender running at full speed on the pillow next to him,” and another to the roar of a jet engine just before takeoff, the potential for serious health effects is high. .
“I wear earplugs, I put a pillow over my head, but I still can hear it,” said Nancy Haitch, who lives on the 11th floor of the building, Citylights, the first residential high-rise built in what was once an industrial wasteland.
Area residents affected by the fan noise have lodged complaints through the city’s 311 system and with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but to no avail.
Transit officials say that it would cost $300,000 to muffle the noise, but that money would be hard to come by with the agency facing serious financial problems. The authority offered a reprieve last weekend: It instead turned on fans in Manhattan, on the eastern edge of Tudor City, according to a transit worker stationed by the fans in Queens.
“These are real people, and it’s real lives being affected,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the neighborhood affected by the fan noise and organized the meeting. “We’re talking about sleepless nights here, not just an inconvenience.”
Charles F. Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit, which operates the subway and bus service, could not say when the fans would come on during this period.
“I don’t have the schedule in front of me,” he said in an interview. Mr. Seaton added that while the agency has been considering a couple of alternatives to address the problem, “It would be a little bit premature to say what they are and how they would affect the fans’ noise.”
At Citylights — which has 42 floors and offers breathtaking views of the city — the noise has become the topic of conversation among neighbors who bump into one another in the lobby, in an elevator or at the lounge next door. And in some ways, it has brought them closer together. Mr. Christie, an office manager who has lived in the building since 1997 when it welcomed its first residents, said that though he welcomes the camaraderie, he is more concerned with how the noise might be affecting his health.
“I find myself going to bed at night wondering if the fans will come on and wake me up,” Mr. Christie, 44, said. “This unpredictability is psychologically draining, and after a while, it really gets to you.”
Excerpted from an article by By Fernanda Santos, New York Times
Any sudden loud noise triggers our natural fight-or-flight response; the heart pumps harder, blood pressure rises, and the body releases cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones.) It is the inability to predict the sound that will bring on this response, which is why your body does not react similarly when you perform actions that cause loud noise, such as running the vacuum cleaner or revving your car engine. This unexpected and repeated triggering of the fight-or-flight reflex can take a toll on your health and well-being.
Our ancestors used the fight-or-flight instinct to survive; today, it actually has the opposite effect, causing higher rates of anxiety and cardiovascular stress. Researchers have made a direct connection between unwanted ambient noise and increased blood pressure. The higher the noise level, in fact, the higher the risk of hypertension, which is a major cause of heart disease. Studies of the effects of noise on health has researchers estimating that three percent of all fatal heart attacks can be attributed to stress induced by excessive environmental noise.
There are options for reducing the levels of ambient noise from your daily life. Whenever possible, installing sound proofing material like Acoustiblok (http://www.acoustiblok.com) in new construction and retrofits reduces the effects of ambient noise by up to 70-percent or more. UL-approved Acoustiblok can reduce more sound than 12-inches of concrete.
Noise reducing headphones or ear plugs are quick fixes for blocking unwelcome sound. It is important to take steps toward correcting noise problems in our own environments, whether it means closing windows, replacing noisy appliances or even moving away from noisy train or airport vicinities. As scientists reveal more findings regarding the effects of noise on health, more people are becoming proactive in their own personal zen levels by taking steps to quiet their world.