What is noise pollution?

Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing

A screaming child, TV blaring in the living room, a vacuum cleaner, loud music coming from your teen's bedroom: a busy home can be a source of constant noise. Once you step outside, there's even more noise pollution. On an average day, you may hear your neighbor's lawn mower, honking cars, barking dogs, sirens, maybe even ear-shattering sounds of a construction or a work site—a saw, a drill, a jackhammer.

Welcome to the modern–and very noisy–world. Unless you live in a quiet rural area, you are no stranger to the phenomenon of environmental noise, commonly called noise pollution.

Secondhand sound is harmful

Noise pollution is often referred to as the "modern unseen plague" for good reason. It may be unseen but certainly not unheard. It disturbs us practically everywhere we go, day and night. And, besides leading to hearing loss, it impacts our physical and mental health, too.

You've heard of secondhand smoke. It's time to think of noise pollution as secondhand sound. It's harmful and nearly unavoidable in most urban areas.

What is noise pollution?

Noise pollution is a state of excessive noise that "seriously harms human health and interferes with people's daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time," according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

How common is noise pollution?

How big of a problem is excess noise? According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels on a regular basis, an increase of 10 million from just a few years ago. And, of course, many millions more are impacted by noise pollution worldwide, so it is fair to say that environmental noise is a growing global problem.

What are the most common sources of noise pollution?

This is highly dependent on where you live, your occupation and your hobbies. A mechanic who lives next to a busy intersection and takes the subway frequently will encounter a lot more noise pollution than, say, an office worker who lives in the suburbs and drives alone most days. But in general, these are the top sources of noise pollution:

  • Construction sites: This is the most obvious example when most people think of noise pollution because we've all lived near or walked past a very loud construction site, which rely on heavy equipment like cranes, cement mixers, pay loaders and jack hammers, which produce very loud, near-constant noise.
  • Piped-in sound: House parties, concerts, clubs, stadiums and other similar venues and situations are fun for visitors but not so fun for people in surrounding neighborhoods who have to listen to constant noise, especially when these events feature loud speakers. Boom cars and loud speakers also add to the clatter.
  • Traffic: Transportation is pervasive, especially in large and crowded cities. People who live near highways are often affected by the noise pollution, which includes car engines, emergency sirens, horns and loud music, along with the general whir of passing traffic.
  • Airport traffic: People who live very close to airports often deal with noise pollution from incoming and outbound planes. Likewise, individuals and families residing near train tracks also deal with horns and heavy cars on a daily (and even hourly) basis.
  • Industrial machinery: The furnaces, compressors, generators and cranes at industrial sites are mostly harmful to those working at plants or factories.
Health effects of noise pollution

Ever get irritated when hearing a car alarm going off for no reason? What about a barking dog? An ambulance siren? It's not unusual for people in big cities to hear all of these sounds at once, plus other sounds of the city. It's a stressful experience, and chronic stress is unhealthy. These noises distract you from whatever you're doing, hurt your hearing, and may keep you up at night, leading to sleep deprivation.

"Chronic environmental noise causes a wide variety of adverse health effects, including sleep disturbance, annoyance, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), cardiovascular disease, endocrine effects, and increased incidence of diabetes" state the authors of a public health report on noise pollution in the U.S.

All of the following are linked to excessive exposure to noise:

  • Noise-induced hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, also referred to as ringing in the ears
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Heart disease and diabetes
  • Pain and fatigue
  • Poor work and school performance
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Speech problems
  • Hormonal responses (stress hormones) and their consequences on human metabolism and immune system function

Noise pollution advocacy

There is a small but growing awareness of noise pollution and its effects on your health and hearing. Some organizations are dedicated to increasing the safety and silence in our noisy world. For example, Silencity is a New York City-based organization that raises awareness about noise pollution and seeks out restaurants and public spaces where city dwellers can enjoy a quiet, safe respite from the noise. UK-based Pipedown is dedicated to eliminating the annoying canned music we cannot escape when we dine and shop. Noise-free America campaigns for public and political awareness on the harms of noise pollution.

Protecting yourself from noise pollution

These are certainly laudable moves, and more tangible measures like them are needed in all the noisy urban centers. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to protect your hearing and health in general against harmful noise pollution:

  • Know when loud is too loud. Many noises can cause damage (those above 80 decibels), including jet engines, lawn mowers, motorcycles, chainsaws, powerboats, and personal stereos. If you have to raise your voice to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within an arm's length away, the noise is probably in this range.
  • But it's not just "loud" noise that contributes to noise pollution, it's the cumulative din of urban life that adds up to an average day that's rarely silent or quiet. Be aware of how your own behaviors may be contributing to the problem, and how you can reduce noise pollution with small changes: Don't idle your car, use rugs and carpeting in your apartment, and shop for lower-noise power tools and appliances. The NIH has other ideas, too, including turning off music or the TV when you're not using it, and planting trees to create noise buffers.
  • When involved in loud work or recreational activities, wear hearing protective devices (HPDs) such as earplugs or earmuffs. HPDs are required by law to be labeled with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) that is based on performance obtained under ideal laboratory conditions, so keep this in mind when shopping around. One of the loudest and most harmful sound on the planet is from firearms.
  • If you think you might have hearing loss, get tested and treated as soon as possible.

To learn more about hearing protection devices and to have your hearing tested, visit a hearing professional near you today to get started on the path to healthier hearing.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Healthy Hearing (www.healthyhearing.com). Original article: https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/47496-Noise-pollution-hearing-loss

Millions of Americans are exposed to noise pollution every day that causes hearing loss and a host of other health conditions. Find out how to reduce noise pollution and preserve your well-being.