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."