Avoiding the Modern Plague of Noise Pollution

Noisy aircraft and highway traffic. What could happen?

Noise pollution characterizes modern society: busy highways and railroads, bad commute traffic, aggressive motorists, construction, manufacturing plants, loud TVs, vacuum cleaners and neighbours. These are numerous, pervasive, persistent and socially significant.

You probably know about the ill-effects of processed food, lack of exercise, mental fatigue, but have you thought about the long-term consequences of noise pollution?

Recent studies show the health effects:

A recent Swedish study found aircraft noise and hypertension are linked. Individuals living near an airport had 40% higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure. When the researchers looked for signs of heart organ damage, they found that those living with higher levels of aircraft noise had stiffer aortas and higher ventricular mass. The Swedish scientists suggest this might be due to an increased release of stress hormones, which raise blood pressure. Even when we sleep, noise pollution enters our ears and is fed to our brains, potentially putting our body on “high alert”.

In a study published recently in the European Heart Journal, a team of doctors discovered that living near road traffic noise increases by 4% risk of all-cause mortality. Specifically, the researchers also found that adults aged 25-74 who lived in areas where traffic noise was above 60 dB were at 5% greater risk of stroke, while the risk was higher for elderly adults, at 9%. The doctors suggested that road traffic noise increases blood pressure, stress and reduces sleep quality.

In another observation study published in the Occupational and Environmental Medicine, those living near sources of noise pollution have larger waist size, bigger waist to hip ratio. Simply, noise pollution is linked to central obesity.

These observations show that noise pollution affects both nervous and hormonal systems. Long-term consequences include local and systemic inflammation on heart and blood vessels, oxidative stress and an imbalance in the correction functioning of the nervous system.

Preventing Noise Pollution

It is important to reduce proactively disruptive and excessive noise, especially those above 60db.

A good first step is downloading a decibel meter app on your smartphone and measure sound levels at home, at work, and when commuting. Search for “db meter” on the App Store or on the Google Play Store. Fortunately, a few are free. There are also free applications for laptops.

If you find frequent occurrences of noise above 60db, it is time to take steps to avoid adverse health effects:

  • Investigate first what are the sources of noise. Often, people forget to look in the mirror and find they are a source of excessive noise. You might be contributing to increasing everyone’s stress levels!
  • If you are looking for a home for rent or for purchase, measure sound levels thoroughly. There are also crowdsourced noise maps : WideNoise and NoiseWatch have maps for Europe and parts of Asia and North America.
  • Homes can be acoustically insulated. Keep away noisy machines away from your bedroom, or replace them. Plants can be added in the year or indoors to regulate noise (Look at Japanese Peace Lilies).
  • You can take steps, meet neighbors, raise awareness at city councils and ask to reduce significantly noise levels. Check what are the regulations in your area and file a complaint if regulations are violated. Get involved in a community tree-planting project to block noise.
  • Plants can be added in the office. However, the easiest is most often asking for relocation in a less noisy location. Again, use your decibel meter on your phone to assess sound levels.
  • You can try different routes for commuting. What about switching from bus to metro? or try another highway?
  • If there is no easy way to reduce environment noise pollution, you can drown the noise in natural noises. Various studies show that we respond positively to sounds of chirping birds, rain, wind, water trickling downstream etc. These natural sounds can alleviate pain, decrease blood pressure, and decrease cortisol (stress hormone) production. I recommend a free app like Relax Melodies. You can use sound-cancelling headphones such as the Bose QuietComforts, or stream them to your favorite TV or bluetooth speakers.

Remember that not all noises are bad! Noise helps us navigate and adapt to our environment. Cutting off all sounds can be counter-productive.

Similarly, one occurrence of noise above 60dB is not necessarily bad. It is good to dance, sing or have dinner with a good “noisy” bunch of friends. It’s when noises are persistent, pervasive and excessive that balance is lost. We must then take actions.

Happy noise pollution hunting!

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