The Health Effects of Noise Pollution
A large part of my goals for NoiseNet is to help those who are suffering from noise pollution in their home or work environments. So many people don’t realise that noise pollution can have some very real effects on our mental and physical health, and living in places with particularly high levels can be immediately harmful. Sometimes we can tend to discount the importance of noise, and ultimately that can leave you exposed to this hazard. So I wanted to take some time to break down what noise pollution is, and how it can affect us.
What Is Noise Pollution?
Much like other kinds of pollution, noise pollution is the contamination of an environment with a toxic or unnatural substance - in this case, that substance is sound waves. Of course, many sounds are perfectly natural, like bird calls or waves or strong winds. Noise pollution happens when those natural sounds are overlapped with human noise, like traffic, large crowds, outdoor events, or construction.
These sounds are additive: the loudest ones don’t just replace the quiet ones - instead, they combine to be louder than the sum of their parts. Think about being in a crowded restaurant. Everyone might be talking at a normal level, but when you walk in the doors you’re bombarded with noise.
Many people, most unknowingly, are experiencing a sharp rise in noise pollution due to human societal development. More people means more urban development, more transport, more crowds. Even things we wouldn’t immediately think of as noisey, like our neighbour’s washers and dryers, can add to the soundscape of noise pollution in our vicinity.
But does this affect you?? Why does it matter?
Noise Pollution’s Impact on Physical Health
Everyone understands that hearing protection is necessary in places like loud job sites. Loud sounds can directly cause tinnitus, abnormal loudness perception, and auditory hallucinations (also known as paracusis); regular exposure can cause long-term hearing loss. However, outside of these environments, many people will dismiss the severity of noise pollution’s effects on the body.
According to a 2017 study review, there is strong evidence that even short-term exposure to noise pollution can temporarily increase both blood pressure and blood viscosity, which can lead to a large number of severe health problems - even becoming fatal if left untreated. The review finds a correlation between long-term exposure to noise and higher rates of cardiovascular disease, which further back up the earlier findings.
The review’s authors suggest that this might be caused by the effects of noise pollution on the stress hormone cortisol. When the body is overexposed to cortisol, we experience a large number of physical and mental issues, including anxiety, muscle tension, sleep problems, and high blood pressure.
Since the main evolutionary purpose of our ears was to perceive threats, they have a strong bond with our hormonal systems, and excessive noise pollution in our daily lives can easily lead to real damage to these systems. But these hormones also affect our minds, meaning managing our mental health in a noisy area becomes even more important.
Noise Pollution’s Impact on Mental Health
Since our ears are always alert, even while we’re asleep, frequent noise has a strong effect on our stress levels. When your brain perceives a threat during sleep, it will alter your natural rapid eye movement cycles in case you need to jump into fight or flight mode - this means the depth and quality of your sleep is interrupted. Lack of REM sleep is linked to troubles with retaining new information, concentration, and severe impacts to one's mood.
These symptoms can snowball, along with the increased anxiety and depression linked to high cortisol levels, into extremely negative moods. We’ve all had a bad night’s sleep before, but can you imagine how you’d feel if that was all you ever had? I know I’d be an absolute terror to be around.
So How Can We Reduce Noise Pollution?
In many cases, noise pollution is an unavoidable part of modern life. One thing I always advocate for is being picky when choosing your home - inspect at multiple times in the day, so you can hear what the ambient noise levels are like at different times. Of course, if you don’t happen to be in the property market at the moment, here’s a few things I think can help:
Soundproofing: Adding some kind of insulation to your home can help absorb and muffle sounds both inside and out. Rugs, carpets, and curtains are a big help, and if you’re in a particularly polluted area you can put some panels of acoustic foam on your walls.
Turn down your media devices: This one seems obvious, but be careful with how loud you have your TV, radio, and especially headphones. Also consider spending your free time on quieter activities like reading or crafty hobbies, and try to avoid having the TV or music playing in the background.
Be aware of your appliances: Many home appliances like air conditioners, fans, clothes dryers, and heaters, can output a lot more noise than you realise. Particularly, older models can be even more pollutive. Try turning your appliances off more regularly or setting them on timers, and if possible, try to upgrade old models to newer, quieter ones. A great source of information on quiet appliances is available at Quiet Mark.
Ear protection: At the more extreme end, if loud noise is unavoidable, use solid ear protection such as earplugs or earmuffs. Noise cancelling headphones are also a possibility here, but whatever you do, do not try to drown out the nuisance noise. This will simply increase the overall noise level and the resulting damage to your ears.
Address the noise at the source: If the nuisance noise is coming from outside your home, you are often within your rights to ask that the noise source be eliminated or reduced. Talk to the person creating the noise and ask that they reduce it. If that proves ineffective, talk to the relevant regulator - in most locations there are rules around when and how often noise can be made, and how loud it can be. If it is affecting you, you have a right for it to be addressed.
Noise pollution is a very real public health issue right now, and it’s only going to get worse as urbanisation increases. Multiple studies show it significantly increases stress, which can lead to significant mental and physical health problems beyond the conventionally known hearing damage. It is possible to take steps to minimise the impact of these problems, or to get them resolved at source. Knowledge is your greatest defence against noise pollution, so I hope I’ve given you a few tools to combat it.