Noise Pollution, a Widely Underestimated Health Hazard

Noise PollutionYou may get a headache, be unable to concentrate, become annoyed over seemingly simple things. Your heart races, you break a sweat, feel anxious and unsettled for no particular reason. And then you realize that it’s just awfully loud where you are. It’s called noise pollution, and it can do serious damage to both your physical and mental well-being.

Exposure to Loud Noise Can
Cause Serious Health Risks

Some experts have called noise pollution “a modern plague” because it’s ubiquitous and nearly impossible to escape. In their 2007 study, the authors Lisa Goines, RN, a nurse, and Louis Hagler, MD, a physician at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, California, have found that environmental noise is a growing threat on par with water and air pollution that can lead to wide-ranging negative outcomes in public health, especially among the poor, the elderly, and young children.

“Noise produces direct and cumulative adverse effects that impair health and that degrade residential, social, working, and learning environments with corresponding real (economic) and intangible (well-being) losses,” the authors say.

Far from being just another inevitable nuisance in modern-day life, excessive noise can interfere with sleep, concentrated work, communication, and recreation. In many ways, it can be as damaging as exposure to second-hand smoking and other environmental health hazards, and should be treated as such, Goines and Hagler recommend.

As far back as 1971, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued warnings about the impact of environmental disturbances on humans, including increasing noise levels from traffic and industrial activities, and called for regulations.

In its 1999 Guidelines for Community Noise, the organization lists specific risks from excessive noise exposure to hearing, person-to-person communication, sleep, cardiovascular health, mental health, cognitive development in children, task performance, and social behavior.

More recent studies have shown that especially the growing rate of heart disease may be linked, among other factors, to environmental noise. Like other stressors, noise can affect the cardiovascular system by elevating blood pressure and releasing stress hormones such as cortisol.

Tragically, children who grow up in noisy surroundings are especially vulnerable to some of the repercussions. Attention span, learning, problem solving and memory can be severely affected by noise. The cognitive development of young ones can be hindered when homes and schools are located near sources of loud noise such as highways and airports, according to the WHO report and other studies.

Despite the many effects of noise pollution on the public’s health we know about, not much consideration has been given to the issue to date, according to Dr. Richard L. Neitzel, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor and co-author of a study on environmental noise pollution and the need for effective public health responses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first published a set of recommendations for protecting the public from environmental noise in 1974, but its research was discontinued in the 1980s and only recently renewed.

What we need is to raise greater awareness that noise does not only damage people’s hearing but that the potential risks to their well-being are much graver, said Dr. Mathias Basner, a professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia to Reuters. Installing new windows and insulation at home and protecting one’s hearing from loud noise sources as much as possible can be very effective, but it should not be our only resort, he said. “Noise that is not produced cannot have effects.”

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