How Noise Pollution Could Send You to the Hospital
We trim this still long yet insightful 2008 article from Ode which appeared on AlterNet July 15. Mary Desmond Pinkowish is a health writer living the quiet life in Larchmont, New York. Ursula Sautter is a freelance journalist living in Bonn, Germany.
By Ursula Sautter and Mary Desmond Pinkowish
A leaf blower, snow blower, lawn mower and two huge dogs convert idyllic backyards of birds, squirrels, and crabgrass into the sonic equivalent of La Guardia or Heathrow. Mild-mannered, exceedingly polite people are reduced to screaming, fist-shaking, and cursing in the face of these acoustic offenses, in a world that’s increasingly cacophonous.
Noise isn’t just a nuisance; it’s positively bad for us. We’ve known for decades that super-loud noise can deafen us. But damaged hearing is just the beginning. A jet flying overhead or a snoring bedmate can increase blood pressure and heart rate even when we don’t stir from our slumber. Stress hormones surge into the bloodstream. Doctors worry that this chain of events creates health problems when it happens all night long, every night of the week. The ability of children to learn is compromised by noise. Noise may worsen some mental illnesses, and even people without previous mental health issues can become downright crazy when exposed to loud noise.
“We have lost our rights to enjoy our own property without the intrusion of noise,” says Ted Rueter, founder and director of Noise Free America, a grassroots outfit dedicated to fighting noise pollution. “Noise is a form of trespassing.”
For Les Bloomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC), the whole idea of what constitutes noise needs to change. “The old definition of noise was ‘unwanted sound,’” he says. “But we define noise as any sound that impacts or harms the health of people. This definition is more consistent with definitions of other forms of pollution, including air pollution.”
Global warming notwithstanding, environmental pollution is easing. In most developed countries, the air and water are cleaner than they were 30 years ago. Noise pollution, in contrast, is getting worse. Now people are getting mad as hell — and they aren’t going to take it anymore.
Complaints about noise pollution are mounting. In Europe, 40 percent of the population is exposed to daytime road noise exceeding 55 decibels (dBA), and 20 percent of people spend their days listening to noise that exceeds 65 dBA; 60 dBA is about the noise level generated by a typical dishwasher. So imagine sitting next to a running dishwasher all day.
About 30 percent of Europeans are forced to sleep in environments with noise that exceeds 55 dBA every night, a level known to disrupt sleep, and 44 percent of Europeans, more than 200 million people, are exposed to health-threatening noise levels.
To prevent hearing loss, people should be exposed to no more than 70 decibels of environmental noise in a 24-hour period. But noise exceeding 55 decibels outdoors and 45 decibels indoors interferes with work and conversation and annoys people. And that annoyance is becoming more pronounced. Of those who participated in the US Census in 2000, nearly one-third complained of noise. More than 10 percent rated the noise as bothersome, and of these, 40 percent said they wanted to move because of noise.
Transportation — road, rail and air traffic — is the major source of noise pollution. Things haven’t changed much in the past few thousand years. The ancient Romans suffered so much from the noise made by iron-wheeled wagons driven over stone pavements that they enacted laws to regulate the use of these vehicles. This is a continuing legacy in the city of Rome. Virtually every review of Rome’s hotels makes note of the amount of traffic and road noise guests can expect.
“It is important to differentiate between effects like hearing loss and stress effects like high blood pressure, because two different sound sources are concerned,” says Wolfgang Babisch, senior research officer at the German Federal Environmental Agency in Berlin. “On the one hand, there is industrial noise and leisure-activity noise — things such as rock concerts, discos and iPod use — that can cause various degrees of hearing loss and/or tinnitus [a persistent ringing in the ears]. Studies have shown, for instance, that noise levels of more than 100 decibels are absolutely normal on today’s dance floors, and young people often complain of hearing problems as a result. On the other hand, there is the so-called environmental noise caused by road or aircraft traffic. Since the sound level is lower in these instances, there are usually no adverse effects on hearing. But they can affect the whole organism by triggering stress responses.”
Cars and trucks produce noise in two ways. The engines make noise, and the contact between the vehicle and the road creates noise. At speeds greater than 40 mph (60 km/h), road noise is louder than engine noise.
Trains and other forms of rail transportation make lots of noise too. That unendurable wheel squeal happens when the train goes around tight curves, which are more common in crowded cities. Train stations are noisy because of running engines, engine whistles, and loudspeaker systems. High-speed trains, those that travel faster than 155 mph (250 km/h), can mimic the acoustic effect of a low-flying jet directly overhead.
Speaking of jets, it’s not just the noise that’s disturbing; it’s, but the vibration and rattle they cause at low altitudes. People living three-quarters of a mile from LaGuardia airport are exposed to four times as much noise as people living five miles away. Among people whose homes were in the flight path, 55 percent said they were bothered by the noise.
But airports don’t just have planes; they also draw road traffic, and even more people, 63 percent, said they were bothered by road noise leading into and out of the airport. The noise translated to a sound that is perceived to be roughly twice as loud as a more or less constant background noise level in the home.
The sounds of construction, especially in cramped urban areas, are another major contributor to noise pollution — pneumatic hammers, air compressors, bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks and pavement-breakers.
Hospitals can be as noisy as construction sites, yet people are expected to recover from illness there. The WHO guidelines for hospitals stipulate that neither daytime nor nighttime noise levels should exceed 30 and 40 dBA respectively. Noise in the Nottingham hospital was measured and analyzed over a 24-hour period on five general surgical wards. On all of them, peak noise levels exceeded 80 dBA during the day. On one ward, the peak level was an astounding 95.6 dBA. That’s like having a cement truck drive past your bed — repeatedly.
Similar results come from a study performed in Madurai, India, in which the obstetrics and gynecology unit was the noisiest (72 dBA) and the quietest was the morgue (57 dBA). At least the patients in the morgue are less likely to complain.
It’s a staple of cartoons and sitcoms: A red-faced guy is sitting in a chair trying to read the paper, but the veins in his temple are bulging and steam is coming out of his ears because of a) noisy neighbors, b) a barking dog, c) a jackhammer, or d) planes flying overhead. The steam out the ears is an exaggeration; the bulging veins aren’t. Chronic exposure to loud noise is bad for the cardiovascular system.
“Long-term exposure to environmental noise, especially at night, causes chronic disturbance of the natural sleep pattern — even if you don’t wake up completely,” says Babisch of the German Federal Environmental Agency. “Studies in sleep labs have proved that persons exposed to this type of noise show increased levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin. These hormones regulate metabolic functions that affect risk factors such asthe blood fat level and blood sugar level.”
Babisch adds that these reactions occur even in people who consider themselves inured to noise and don’t report disturbed sleep. “There is no 100 percent noise habituation. The ears don’t switch off when we sleep. The brain still registers the information about what’s going on around us.”
Neurosis, hysteria, anxiety, stress, nausea, aggression, argumentativeness and social conflict — these are just a few of the emotional problems linked to uncontrolled noise. And while noise may not cause mental illness, it’s believed to worsen disorders like depression and anxiety. People living near the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, were more likely to need sleep medication, take pills for heart disease and report poor general health.
Wherever theres noise, people should consider popping in some earplugs at night.
Noise may not make kids dumb, but it does make it hard for them to learn. A direct relationship exists between aircraft noise exposure at schools and problems with reading comprehension, even after the investigators account for socio-demographic factors known to interact with reading comprehension.
Very young kids in daycare learn to screen noise so they can stay on task. But they can get too good at this. By the time some of them are in elementary school, they’ve learned how not to pay attention to the classroom instruction.
The March 5, 2007, edition of The New York Times ran a story about a meeting of The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, an organization dedicated to “an aggressive campaign against the useless and nerve-racking noises of the street.” The Society reported progress in getting automobile owners to avoid driving past churches, hospitals and schools. If drivers couldn’t avoid these institutions, they were asked to do two things: reduce their speed and refrain from using the horn.
The German Federal Environmental Agency’s Babisch thinks new technologies can help turn down the volume. “Technological advances have caused some noise sources to quiet down,” he says. “Cars and aircraft are less noisy than they once were, and countless noise barriers have been erected. But this is compensated for by the increased volume of traffic, so overall noise exposure hasn’t changed much.”
Other measures include offering park-and-ride lots and pedestrian-only areas, replacing old stone pavements and brushed concrete with sound-absorbing surfaces, and using small roundabouts and interactive speed-restriction signs to slow traffic instead of speed bumps and traffic obstacles, which can increase traffic noise.
Indoors, solutions range from the simple — carpeting — to the novel — antibacterial fiberglass, which absorbs the noise created by ventilation systems, hospital equipment, and human speech.
Legislation helps, too. A pub-noise crackdown is underway in the UK, while lawmakers in Brevard County, Florida, in the US have enacted a law to force drivers to keep car stereos turned down. More than 600 citations were issued in accordance with similar legislation in the city of Melbourne, Australia, in 2007.
Noise Free America wants each state in the US to declare noise “a dangerous form of pollution” and adopt a noise code. The proposed code would ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers, car alarms and loud exhaust pipes. The code would outline fines for the owners of barking dogs, set time frames for construction work and garbage collection and establish a rule stating that electronically amplified sound coming from a car can’t be audible more than 10 feet from the vehicle. Other provisions include limits on the use of power equipment, Jet Skis, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, sirens and train horns.
In Thailand around Suvarnabhumi Airport near Bangkok, activists released bunches of balloons to disrupt air traffic in protest against the noise between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. When faced with the possibility that neighbors would launch homemade rockets along with the balloons, civil authorities began negotiations for financial compensation of people living near the airport.
To the NPC’s Les Bloomberg, things are looking up. “One reason for my optimism about noise pollution is that it’s hard to imagine it getting worse,” he says.
“In many places, our sense of community has broken down. We don’t care about our neighbors. We don’t know our neighbors.” As a result, we don’t necessarily care if we keep them awake at night or disrupt their quiet summer afternoons.
His solution? Throw a party or start a carpool. Bloomberg says you’re less likely to offend a neighbor if you drive each other’s children to school each day.
Noise and mere volume differ. Little kids running around the yards of three families, yelling and laughing, is not imposing on anyone; all are out there visiting. Its a small footprint of happy human voices audible when the machines are silenced.
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