Screeching sirens, thunderous jackhammers and other earsplitting noises are known to harm a person’s hearing—or even mental health. But these aren’t the only dangers.
A growing body of evidence shows that “noise pollution” is worsening with each passing year…and potentially harming our overall health in the process. The impact of noise is comparable to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. But unlike smog and diesel exhaust, noise pollution receives scant attention by the media. What’s more, people are often unaware when noise pollution is wreaking its insidious damage.
What you need to know about the growing threat of noise pollution…
What’s the Problem?
Noise (aka “unwanted sound”) can come from just about anywhere. It can be the drone of cars on a nearby road…your neighbor’s barking dog…or the TV in the next room. And it doesn’t take much to cause harm.
What most people don’t realize: While very loud noises—such as fireworks at close range or a jet plane takeoff—pose obvious threats to your hearing, damage often begins at more modest levels, such as that produced by a leaf blower or the music you listen to in your car or with earbuds.
As with many environmental toxins, impact depends on three things—intensity, duration and frequency. What determines adverse effects, experts believe, is the average noise exposure over time.
If you live in a city, harmful levels of noise are likely to be your constant companion. But even if you live in the suburbs or a rural area, you’re also at increased risk if you have a lengthy commute, which is likely to include loud traffic sounds, or a noisy work environment.
Damage You Might Not Expect
As scientists continue to dig into the negative impacts of noise pollution, evidence is mounting for a wide range of health problems. For example…
• Hearing. Some researchers believe that much of what is generally considered a natural age-related decline in hearing (presbycusis) may actually reflect the cumulative impact of noise.
• Cardiovascular disease. There’s strong evidence linking noise pollution and cardiovascular disease. Rates of heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure and stroke increase with higher levels of noise.
For example, a research review published in 2018 in Journal of the American College of Cardiology noted that road traffic and aircraft noise increased risk for coronary heart disease by 6% for every 10 decibels (dBA), starting as low as 50 dBA.
The actual culprit here is stress. Noise activates the autonomic nervous system—the body’s “fight or flight response”—triggering the release of hormones (such as cortisol) that put the cardiovascular system into chronic overdrive. Excess stress hormones also promote generalized inflammation, which is linked to heart disease.
Note: Noise at night carries special risk. So-called “microarousals”—periods during which noise arouses the nervous system, but not quite enough to cause a person to wake up or remember the event—are linked to heart disease. The normal restorative drop in blood pressure at night fails to occur when sleep is fragmented.
• Cognitive function. Noise also appears to impair cognitive function, with working memory and attention especially affected, according to a study published in Noise & Health.
• Diabetes. Even though the evidence is thus far inconclusive, the stress of noise pollution may disrupt proper endocrine function, raising risk for diabetes, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives has found.
• Breast cancer. Preliminary research has identified a link between aircraft noise and an increased risk for certain types of breast cancer—perhaps due, in part, to sleep disruptions, according to a study published in 2017 in Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.
To Protect Yourself
The first step in minimizing noise-related health risks is to recognize that these harms to your overall health do exist. Here are simple steps you can take…
• Create some distance. When waiting to cross a busy street or catch a train, stand back from the curb or train tracks—a few feet farther from noise makes a substantial difference in its intensity.
• Avoid the noise. Avoiding noisy areas or ensuring that you take regular breaks from noise in a quiet area reduces your exposure and gives your ears a chance to recover.
• Consider hearing protection. If you will be exposed to a noisy situation or event, whether recreational or occupational, consider hearing protection. There are earplugs and earmuffs that dial down decibels without shutting sound out altogether. Noise-canceling headphones are useful for steady low-frequency sounds, such as background noise on a train or plane.
• Use caution when listening to music. For many people, music is their biggest source of noise exposure. Don’t deprive yourself of music’s stress-reducing benefits, but be prudent. If you use a personal listening device, invest in high-end earbuds or headphones that block out external noise and allow you to lower the volume.
Because amplified concerts can be extremely noisy, wearing hearing protection is a good idea, particularly if you’re close to the speakers. Rule of thumb: If you’re having to raise your voice to talk to someone at arm’s length, it’s probably too loud. If you have to shout, it’s definitely too loud.
• Cut noise levels at home. To reduce noise pollution at home, start with obvious steps such as not blasting the TV. Consider features such as double-paned windows to mute street noise and the clamor of lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment. Additional insulation, rugs and carpeting can help, as well as keeping the windows closed and using air-conditioning.
Be especially mindful of the bedroom. White-noise machines won’t reduce overall sound levels, and can even raise them, but the addition of some white noise will make brief noise intrusions less stress-provoking, which may prevent sleep-disturbing arousals. Sleeping with foam earplugs, which are comfortable, can also help.
Helpful: If you’re looking for a new home, check the noise levels by entering the address on the website HowLoud.com, which provides a soundscore rating. There’s also a free sound-level app at CDC.gov/niosh/topics/noise/app.html. Alternatively, you can find sound-level meters online for $20 to $40.
Important: Even if you’re so accustomed to a particular noise that you don’t really “hear” it anymore, it’s entirely possible that the noise doesn’t bother you any longer because you’ve already lost some hearing! Remember that it’s the total exposure that counts.