Noise pollution is one of the types of pollution we don’t often think about. The World Health Organisation, CDC, and researchers worldwide have been warning against the effect it has on human health for decades.
We spoke with Ted Rueter, founder of Noise Free America, and Kit Frank, an audiologist at NYU Langone Health, about what they think of noise pollution and the damage it can do to our hearing and overall health.
Noise Free America has been battling noise pollution in America for years. One of their latest approaches was to publish the book “Guide to Modified Exhaust Systems: A Reference for Law Enforcement Officers and Motor Vehicle Inspectors.” Following is a transcript of the video.
This is not healthy. When you hear about pollution, you might picture; exhaust fumes, littering or oil spills. But there’s another kind of pollution, you might not know: noise pollution. Like any other pollution, it’s a nuisance to society. Plus, everyone hates it.
Ted Rueter: A few years ago, the US Census Bureau did a survey on what people liked and disliked about their neighbourhoods. What they found was that noise was Americans’ number one complaints about their neighbourhoods. The number one reason why they wish to move.
But comfort isn’t all that’s at stake. Our hearing, overall health, and well-being of our children is in jeopardy.
In 2016, 54.5% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2030, it’s estimated that that population will grow to be 60%. Noise pollution can be found anywhere, but it’s especially bad in cities. Here’s a map of the loudest places in the U.S. Not surprisingly, cities top the list. They have background levels between 55 – 67 decibels. That’s about as loud as the hum from your air conditioner. You’ll notice that’s not including random spikes of noise you hear throughout the day.
The human ear can tolerate noise up to 85 decibels without damage. Anything louder poses a risk of permanent hearing loss. Yet, studies show that anything at or above 65 decibels can trigger an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones in the blood. Over time, we can get used to these sounds but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.
Kit Frank: So, I don’t think we can build-up a tolerance to sound. Anatomically, there’s nothing that changes that can protect you from sound in your ear just because you’re around it a lot. It’s probably more of a psychological effect, that you don’t notice because you hear it all the time.
In 2007, researchers released results from their study on 200,000 hearing tests worldwide. They discovered that city residents had noticeable levels of hearing loss. Their hearing was what it should have been if they were 10 to 20 years older. Once the damage is done, it’s irreversible. We have microscopic hairs in our ears that relay sounds to the brain. They’re fine-tuned to detect vibrating frequencies from our eardrum. If those vibrations are too strong, it can bend, break, or even destroy these delicate hairs. But unlike the hairs on your head, these don’t grow back. Since we cannot see or feel these hairs, the damage from noise pollution can go unnoticed for years, even decades. According to the World Health Organisation, noise is an underestimated threat that can cause a number of short and long-term health problems, such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, and poorer work and school performance.
One of the most famous studies on noise pollution was in 1974. It happened here at P.S. 98 in New York City. The east side of the building faces the subway. When trains passed, the noise pollution in the classroom went from an average of 59 decibels to 89. Teachers had to shout over the noise and this happened about every 4.5 minutes for 30 seconds at a time. The two researchers compared test scores and reading levels of students on the East versus the West side of the building. While students on the west side weren’t affected, students on the east were on average; four months behind on reading level and they performed worse on achievement tests. More studies have gone on to show that children who live in noisy environments have elevated blood pressure and hormones.
There is one silver lining to all of this. A pair of inexpensive earplugs is an easy, temporary fix to this problem. For more short-term solutions, various cities have started implementing quiet hours or ticketing people for noise pollution, under the category of “quality of life” fines.
Ted Rueter: One great example is, Germany. There, they banned lawn mowing on Sundays. You know, Sundays are supposed to be a day of rest. So, who can rest when all of your neighbours are blasting away with their lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Also in Europe, the European Union generally, they have significant noise restrictions on commercial products like dishwashers, refrigerators, and other household items and lawnmowers and leaf blowers. I also understand that India has now banned the two-stroke gas engine. So, definitely, there are other countries that are taking this issue much more seriously than the U.S. is.
If there ever is a permanent fix to this problem, it hinges on one question: when will we start taking noise pollution seriously?
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