It’s no secret that noise pollution can be harmful to your health, and the World Health Organization (WHO) wants you to know the potential consequences of this invisible pollutant.
Folks who live in urban areas are exposed to dangerously high levels of noise pollution every day, which translates to anything above 55 decibels – roughly the sound equivalant of ordinary conversational speech. Industrial and manufacturing plants, freeway, highways, and air traffic noise, busy restaurants and bars, overcrowded public spaces - all of these and more can add up to noise pollution levels that are making people sick. Even if you don’t live in the bustling city, you still have a significant chance of suffering the ill effects of noise pollution. Simply attending noisy events, such as indoor basketball games and other sporting events, live concerts, an aerobics class at the gym can expose you to high noise levels that contribute to the development of tinnitus, hearing loss, and other health problems associated with noise pollution.
So what does WHO consider to be the top health issues directly related to noise?
1. Tinnitus and noise induced hearing loss are the most common consequences of exposure to noise for long periods of time. Researchers say that exposure to 85 decibels for eight hours or longer can cause serious hearing damage. In case you’re wondering, 85 decibels sounds like a large truck rambling down the highway. Live rock concerts can emit more than 100 decibels continuously, which is why your ears tingle when you leave. When you develop noise-induced tinnitus, that tingle becomes a constant ringing in your ears that doesn’t go away.
2. Diminished communication skills were found to be the result of prolonged noise exposure. Noise can lessen our ability to communicate as effectively as we once could. The problem can be so severe, victims of this side-effect of exposure to noise lose the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. They can be more easily prone to confusion, stress, faltering speech, indecision and impatience. However, technology is stepping in with some answers. If your hearing is seriously diminished, Apple has an app for that.
3. Sleep disorders can be the result of exposure to high noise levels, which can lead to chronic insomnia, a medical condition that can cause emotional strain, despondency, a sense of dejection, aggressiveness, and antisocial behavior. When your body’s natural sleep cycle is interfered with, your health is put at risk. When the problem is chronic, it can lead to serious mental and physical illnesses, and even put you at a heightened risk of heart attack.
4. Heart arrhythmia can result from exposure to excess noise, since noise pollution is known to cause sleep disorders, stress, and worsen cardiovascular disease. Elevated heart rates, hypertension, elevated heart rate, and inappropriate triggers of the flight-or-fight response are all common repercussions of exposure to excess noise.
5. Psychiatric disorders, although not caused by exposure to noise, are known to be exacerbated by it. People already suffering from stress and anxiety disorders can experience exaggerated symptoms. When the noise is loud and continuous, it can intensify aggressiveness, mood swings, phobias, and antisocial behavior in the mentally ill. Most alarming is the erosion of well-being that noise pollution can have on unstable or medically weakened children and elderly people, who have a heightened inability to cope with loud sounds.
6. Diminished or lost productivity is an expensive and life altering side effect of noise pollution, which is known to reduce cognitive function. In school children, noise pollution has been proven to interfere with learning, reading skills, information retention and overall academic development and performance. In adults, it negatively affects problem-solving skills, socio-emotional development, work performance and ambition. Businesses lose billions of dollars annually as a result of noise-related lost productivity.
7 Negative Emotions: Many clinical studies have shown that low frequency noise produces seriously negative emotions in people, including fatigue, despair, aggression, unhappiness, anxiety and distraction. Even though these behavioral changes are most often subtle, they influence the daily behaviors and activities of sufferers and manifest in some unsocial behaviors such as door slamming, being accident prone, and even avoiding neighbors or friends.
You may even know people who exhibit some of the behaviors associated with noise-induced illness, and maybe you identify a few of them in yourself. Become more aware of your surroundings and make a note of any noise exposure you think may be affecting your mood or your health. Wherever possible, make the changes necessary to eliminate excess noise from your environment.
Parents who hope to help their children adjust to the stress of everyday life may want to turn down the noise at home.
A Purdue University psychologist says children who come from highly noisy or chaotic households can experience delayed language skills and increased anxiety.
Theodore Wachs has studied environmental influences on early childhood development and helped create a questionnaire to help parents measure the level of "noise confusion" in their homes. Wachs says children need some quiet space at home and some sense of order. Otherwise they're more likely to have trouble adjusting to changing environments outside the home, including school, socialization opportunities, and even ordinary outings to restaurants or religious services.
The effects of ongoing exposure to loud noise can vary with the temperament and sex of a child, according to Wachs.
"Those who have the most trouble are boys who are intense, fussy, or negative."
Wachs recommends parents stop using the TV as a source of background noise and help their children establish a quiet place where the children can retreat, even if it's a small room, a study, or a bedroom that is used only for quiet time.
The location of the family home can also have an effect; studies show that children who live in noisy areas, such as on on highly trafficked roadways, or close to busy airports have poorer reading skills than those in quieter areas, according to findings reported in the New Scientist.
Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, suggest this is because children raised in noisy environments find it harder to recognize and understand human speech. A study compared 58 children who lived under a New York City airport flight path with 50 children from quiet neighborhoods void of chronic noise levels. Those children raised in noisy environments were found to have more trouble reading, and recognizing and understanding spoken words.
Like adults, children exposed to long periods of loud noise can also suffer higher anxiety levels than their peers raised in quieter surroundings, which can eventually lead to long term health issues, including hearing loss, high blood pressure, inability to concentrate, and other challenges.
There are options for creating quiet spaces in homes exposed to internal and external noise. For instance, despite their architectural appeal, ceiling heights are critical in determining acoustical integrity in homes, schools, daycare centers, and other spaces in which children spend time. Ceiling heights over 14 feet are the most problematic in terms of noise levels, as they offer no acoustical balance unless they are treated with high quality noise deadening material attached to the studs under the drywall during the construction process. Other products available that can be applied on top of the drywall have shown promising soundprofing resuts, although the best noise barrier material goes in during construction or renovations, under the drywall.
Chronic exposure to noise has been shown to be harmful to children of all ages. It can have especially detrimental effects on younger children when language and discrimination skills are forming. Often, major noise sources are not considered when it comes to designing the spaces used by children. Designers need to be more aware of noise issues when planning spaces that will be used by children. In child care centers, spaces must allow for the fact that children need to make noise, but the subsequent noise levels should not be harmful to them or others in the center.