Noise Pollution: The Silent Assassin

Many people in the modern-day era stress the prevention of pollution in order to protect the environment. The types of pollution that are widely known to society mainly consist of air, water, and land pollution. This list of commonly known pollutants, however, doesn’t include noise pollution. One may ask: what even is noise pollution? Asking this question is understandable, considering the fact that harmful noise has not been stressed as a prominent issue in Western civilization, yet unusual since noise pollution harms humans – both physically and psychologically. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated in 1981 that 100 million people in the United States were annually exposed to noise that could potentially harm one’s health (Hammer, Swimburn, and Neitzel 2014). Noise can indeed be harmful to human health, despite what others may presume, and the effects of high level noise span a large range: impaired hearing, sleep disruption, cardiovascular strain, and behavioral changes that alter one’s lifestyle. The increase in environmental noise has been allowed to grow excessively over the past few decades due to the progression of modern society as well as the government’s lackadaisical attitude in addressing the problem of noise pollution. The repercussions of excessive noise have taken a toll on human health, and these effects will continue to ensue unless noise pollution is recognized as a serious issue in every-day life and actions are taken to prevent it.

A few months ago, I was tasked with defining the term “noise pollution.” At first glance, I honestly believed the task was a hoax. How could noise pollute the environment? Pollutants are often viewed as matter that makes the environment grimy, but this connotation isn’t always correct. The meaning behind noise pollution can be found within the context of the term itself; the environment is polluted with an excess amount of noise. With the case of noise pollution, the environment doesn’t become physically filthier but the acoustic environment becomes cluttered. A busy acoustic environment is often found in urban settings, also known as Lo-Fi environments, where the sounds are close and compact.

In Fulton County, Georgia (containing almost a million inhabitants), the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission compiled traffic data and conducted noise level simulation to determine the noise-exposed population. The results revealed that 48% of the county population was exposed to noise levels of 55 dB or higher during the day, 32% was exposed to noise levels of 50 dB or higher at night, and 9% was exposed to noise levels of 67 dB or higher overall (Seong et al. 2011). The EPA considers noise levels above 55 dB to be potentially harmful to one’s health, and Fulton County is just one of many locations where noise pollution is prominent.

The image below is a noise map of London.

The noise levels are highest on roadways, exceeding 80 dB. Much of the surrounding area is engulfed in noise above 55 dB as well,  an unhealthy level of sound. The only places where the noise levels are below 35dB are inside any buildings. Once a person steps out into the open, where walls aren’t standing to block out any sound, the noise levels skyrocket. This confirms the idea that cityscapes are indeed cluttered with excessive noise.

R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer and theorist, believes that this sonic compression in cityscapes eats away at a listener’s aural space. “Cities, therefore, create impenetrable soundwalls isolating individuals from their acoustic environment” (Arkette 2004, 162). Although the idea of silence is relative, very rarely would someone immersed in a cityscape say the acoustic environment is silent. This makes sense considering hundreds of thousands of people are bustling about and high concentrations of traffic are dominating the streets in a cityscape. Schafer refers to silence as an endangered species in cityscapes and that it should be preserved just like society would treat a real endangered species (Arkette 2004). If silence is the species, then noise pollution is the disease that’s exterminating it.

Listen to the following audio recordings. The first recording is of my sister, Alexandra Lardaro, walking down a street in Greenwich Village, New York City and the second is of her standing in a subway station. She held the recorder, an iPhone 5, at her waist while making these recordings.

These are two common examples of high density noise and they are prevalent in the every-day lives of almost all city-dwellers. It’s been discovered that the noise levels of subway platforms and subway cars can reach 112dB in New York City (Goines and Hagler 2007). This constant exposure to high concentrated noise makes a person’s ability to hear distant sounds difficult, unlike the hearing abilities of a person living in a Hi-Fi environment. The sound ambiance is much lower in a Hi-Fi environment, allowing individuals to hear discrete and distant sounds. The contrast in hearing abilities due to differing sound levels demonstrates the basic idea that excessive noise comes with consequences.

Most people can relate to hearing a subtle ringing noise the day after attending a concert, a club, or a party. Eventually the ringing noise goes away and is quickly forgotten because the acoustic environment returns to a healthy balance of sounds. But what if one is constantly bombarded with an unhealthy amount of noise? Constant exposure to high levels of noise worsens one’s ability to hear, ultimately leading to hearing impairment. This often occurs within an individual’s occupational environment, whether it be those in the industry who work with loud machines on a daily basis, bartenders who are repeatedly exposed to loud music, or bands who are often surrounded by blaring music. In fact, it was discovered that almost a third of students who worked at a university entertainment event multiple times had permanent hearing loss of more than 30dB. Unhealthy amounts of noise can be found in a recreational environment as well.

80% of elementary school children possess music players that are often used at an unhealthy volume – this is a significant cause in the increased number of children that experience impaired hearing. It was estimated that 12.5% of children ranging from 6 years of age to 19 years of age in America had impaired hearing in either ears or both (Goines and Hagler 2007). One’s hearing was considered impaired if they were unable to hear certain frequencies that a human is normally capable of hearing. Impaired hearing in the youth can alter one’s communication skills, behavior, social/emotional development, and academic endeavors, making a loss in hearing even more dangerous to one’s lifestyle (Benfield et al. 2014). Other leisure activities that involve the emission of unhealthy noise include using firecrackers, riding snowmobiles, and firing guns. Although the sounds produced by these objects are temporary, one’s hearing can be affected permanently, even if the high level noise only lasts for a few milliseconds. These types of noise are barely regulated by the government which leads to many cases of hearing impairment across the country. Without regulations, it is difficult for people to understand the consequences of such excessive noise, which is primarily why noise pollution has been allowed to grow over recent years. People can’t take the necessary precautions if they don’t know they’re being harmed. A survey of young adults who had impaired hearing revealed that 66% of respondents “would be motivated to use ear protection if they were aware of the potential permanent hearing loss” (Goines and Hagler 2007, 289). However, certain individuals chronically exposed to loud noise may say they’ve gotten used to their noisy acoustic environment, but the truth is that their hearing doesn’t get used to it, it only deteriorates. Now of course I’m not saying that you should never engage in these recreational activities ever again, I just want people to be aware of the potential harm that can result from unhealthy noise. That being said, steps can be taken to prevent this hearing loss while still participating in activities involving high levels of noise. Proper ear protection should be used when surrounded by high levels of noise (no matter how short the sounds last), headphones should be used at an appropriate sound level, and individuals should be conscious of whether or not they’re frequently surrounded by harmful noise. This awareness would most likely make someone avoid exposure to what they deem as unnecessary noise and spread their knowledge regarding the effects of noise to others – the goal of my research.

The increased transportation usage in society over recent decades has been associated with increased air pollution, but this heavy transportation usage also produces high levels of noise pollution. 65% of the population within the European Market is exposed to harmful levels of transportation noise (Goines and Hagler 2007). Noise pollution usually stems from road traffic noise and aviation noise. In 2008, the Public Health Service of the Municipality of Amsterdam collected survey data from 1,967 participants. A questionnaire was distributed to the subjects in order to gauge their annoyance with traffic noise. The following question was asked: “‘Thinking of the last 12 months, when you are at home, which number on a scale from 0 to 10 best represents to what extent you are being annoyed or disturbed by noise from the following sources’, followed by: (a) traffic on roads with a maximum speed limit greater than 50 km/h, and (b) traffic on roads with a maximum speed limit of 50 km/h” (de Kluizenaar et al. 2013, 2260). Noise levels were determined for each subject’s “dwelling” in Amsterdam from the side most exposed to noise and the side least exposed to noise. The results revealed that those who resided in dwellings whose quieter side experienced higher noise levels than the quieter side of other subjects reported more noise-induced annoyance.

These participants complained about noise the most because they’re completely engulfed in noise; even the “quieter” side was still far from quiet. If the quieter side of a dwelling experienced high levels of sound, then the individual residing there has no sense of escape from the cluttered acoustic environment. Whereas the other subjects, although still exposed to a high concentration of traffic noise, possessed a safe haven within their truly quiet sides away from the bustling sounds about. You may be thinking that people complain about noise all the time and that no permanent harm comes from noise exposure. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with noise pollution. Chronic annoyance with noise indicates a probable chance that one’s health is being affected by it, and the damage could be perpetual. In fact, the 2000 United States Census discovered that 40% of people who complained about excessive noise moved from their original place of residence (Goines and Hagler 2007). This shows how the recent increase in noise pollution has affected the lives of many, and since noise-induced annoyance is correlated with health distress, noise pollution has specifically affected the health of many as well.

During an interview with my sister who lives in New York City, I asked her how she felt about the destructive ambient sound that’s always present in her environment. She stated that she’s gotten used to the constant buzz of traffic. This is commonplace for some people living in noisy environments to naturally become accustomed to the excessive noise. The cardiovascular system, however, does not grow accustomed to this.  The constant exposure to this type of noise has been associated with the acquisition of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, ischemic heart diseases and stroke. Cardiovascular diseases cause the most human deaths across the globe, and noise pollution is significantly contributing to the cause. But to what extent? A meta-analysis of 14 studies correlating an association between traffic noise and coronary heart diseases was conducted. This analysis discovered that the average risk of acquiring a coronary heart disease increased eight percent per 10dB increase in the acoustic environment. The noise levels at which the study was carried out ranged from 52dB to 77dB. Focusing directly on hypertension, a meta-analysis of 24 studies relating traffic noise to the existence of hypertension was conducted as well. The average risk increased by seven percent per 10dB increase in sound level within the range of 47dB and 77dB. Another meta-analysis of 5 studies demonstrating a connection between traffic noise and ischemic heart diseases was carried out. The average risk of obtaining this disease increased 17 percent per 10dB increase in the acoustic environment, and the noise levels ranged from 57dB to 77dB (Babisch 2014). All of these studies indicate that exposure to such traffic noise is in fact dangerous to an individual’s health and the damage can be permanent.

Growing up in a small suburbia, an airplane would fly overhead every once and a while and the souring sound could be heard for about thirty seconds. The noise did drown out other sounds within my acoustic environment but the noise was ephemeral and not bothersome to any extent. However, I never imagined the possibility of hearing the overbearing sounds of aircraft over and over again. Aviation noise, one of the key sources of noise pollution as mentioned before, has had negative consequences on human health as much as road traffic noise has in recent years. The HYENA project (Hypertension and Exposure to Noise near Airports) was carried out between 2004 and 2006 to find a potential relationship between cardiovascular disease and noise exposure, specifically in areas neighboring airports. 4,861 people participated in the survey that were between 45 and 70 years of age and had lived by a European airport for more than five years. The airports that participants resided near spanned six countries: Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Greece, and Sweden. Information about the health of all participants was gathered and noise mapping displayed how much noise each participant was exposed to. After performing the study, it was discovered that individuals residing near airports had experienced more cardiovascular distress than normal, and the participants exposed to higher levels of aviation noise suffered from this cardiovascular strain more than the other subjects did. But how exactly is cardiovascular distress a result of noise pollution? It mainly derives from sleep disruption.

You’ve probably been told to “quiet down” a few times in your life because others nearby were trying to sleep, or you’ve instinctively tip-toed around someone who was sleeping. These actions have become common courtesy because society has recognized that noise is a major distractor when trying to sleep. So, you may not have noticed but your instincts are aware that excessive noise leads to sleep disruption, one of the major effects of noise pollution. A study in Belgrade showed that noise was the leading cause of awakenings for 44.4% of respondents from a noisy area whereas in a quiet area it was only a leading cause for 6.1% of respondents. A noisy area was defined as an environment that experienced sounds above 65dB and a quiet area was an environment experiencing noise below 65dB (Ristovska and Lekaviciute 2013). However, noise can still disrupt one’s sleep without even waking them up. As the human body goes into deep sleep, blood pressure drops. Although one doesn’t consciously hear extraneous noise while sleeping, the body reacts to the sound by activating the sympathetic part of the nervous system. This process is similar to preparations the body makes before waking up. Therefore, one moves from a deep sleep state to a lighter state of sleep. With this transition between sleep states comes a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, both coalescing into cardiovascular strain which increases the probability of acquiring a cardiovascular disease in the future (Hammer, Swimburn, and Neitzel 2014). These effects typically come about when one is constantly exposed to noise levels above 65 dB (Goines and Hagler 2007). The same study in Belgrade demonstrated that 48.7% of respondents located in a noisy area experienced noise induced sleep disturbance, whereas only 12.9% of respondents located in a quiet area experienced this disturbance (Ristovska and Lekaviciute 2013). In this study, a “disturbance” was classified as an occurrence in which the body reacted to a sound but did not result in an awakening. These percentages are higher than those only accounting for awakenings, indicating that sleep disturbance occurs to people residing in busy acoustic environments more often than one may presume.

“The results are consistent with the hypothesis that noise exposure provokes a stress response causing a release of stress hormones, which in turn affect factors such as blood pressure and heart rate and thus cardiovascular disease risk” (Floud et al. 2013, 90).

Aside from the toll the body takes from noise pollution, the mind is also affected in a variety of ways that can in turn affect one’s behavior. About a month ago, I was tasked with reading an article related to soundscapes while listening to a vacuum cleaner recording with my headphones. At first I believed the assignment ahead of me would be grueling, but my work ethic turned out to be quite efficient. The vacuum cleaner sound had blocked out all other noises in my surroundings, allowing me to fully concentrate on my work and comprehend the text. This was because I established control over my acoustic environment. Studies have shown that this feeling of control reduces noise related annoyance (Staples 1996). Soon after completing this unique assignment, the instructions for the following task were to read another soundscapes article without listening to any recordings. My work efficiency contrasted greatly from the first assignment. Distracted by sounds from my friends nearby, the light bulbs above me, and the mechanical sounds throughout my room, it was difficult to completely understand the article and the time taken to finish the reading took longer than anticipated. Loss of control over the acoustic environment led to a loss of concentration.

Why do people seek quiet areas away from others, such as the library, when attempting to do work or read a text? The answer is quite obvious: because the acoustic environment is quiet. It’s clear that noise exposure affects one’s concentration, but it also detracts from memorizing pieces of information as well as accessing memory. The mind is distracted by the surrounding noise, making it difficult to focus on memory. Excessive noise has been shown to also lead to aggression, a lower frustration tolerance, and a reduction in one’s willingness to help others (Stansfeld and Matheson 2003). Have you ever been surrounded by an abundance of sounds and felt aggravated? Try to recall if this aggravation has caused you to become easily frustrated or aggressive with others around you. These feelings often lead to stress which then reduces one’s helping behavior. Usually when one is stressed, their main objective is to focus on accomplishing their own tasks before assisting in the endevours of others. All of the built-up stress resulting from noise exposure also increases heart rate and blood pressure which then causes cardiovascular strain, indicating that noise can lead to cardiovascular diseases from multiple angles.

After discovering how extensive and severe noise pollution can affect human health, I wondered how noise pollution has been allowed to remain prominent in American society specifically. One of the core reasons as to why this destructive ambient sound has been allowed to unfold upon urban environments in the United States is because the government has not dealt with the issue effectively. In 1977, a report was drawn up by members of the EPA and sent to Congress explaining how noise pollution has not been addressed and that effective regulations must be instituted to combat the problem. Attempts had been made to reduce noise pollution but none came to fruition. A major step taken to combat noise pollution was the Noise Control Act of 1972, but the objectives of the legislation were slow to take shape and were considered low priority in the eyes of the government. The act planned to issue noise emission standards and label noise emission levels on certain products in order to protect citizens and make them more aware of their acoustic environment, but noise emission standards were issued slowly and little progress was made in creating noise emission labels. Finalizing aviation noise control regulations was also never completed due to the lack of coordination between the EPA and the FAA (United States 1997). These unfruitful efforts were mainly a result of little government funding in addressing the tasks and the government focusing on other issues plaguing society at the time.

The government’s lack of action against noise pollution and its lackadaisical attitude towards addressing the problem explains why noise pollution’s growth over the recent years has been unchallenged. Unless the government recognizes destructive ambient sound as a serious issue in society, then its magnitude will only increase due to the way modern civilization has been advancing. As a result of the government’s inability to regulate noise pollution, a great majority of citizens are unaware that the issue even exists – just like I was prior to my research. During my research, I surveyed 100 people that were between the age of 14 and 84 asking the question: What are the first three types of pollution that come to your mind? Only 11 subjects included noise pollution in their response and 65 subjects stated they didn’t know what noise pollution was. Destructive ambient sound is not even known or considered a prominent issue to a large majority of individuals, indicating that the government must not only issue regulations to prevent the spread of noise pollution but must also inform the public of its danger and the precautions citizens should take on their own.

Humiliated with myself for being unaware of noise pollution’s presence in society, my research led me to uncover its history and the direction it was heading towards. Noise pollution developed its first major presence in society during the onset of the Industrial Revolution. During the 18th and 19th century, workers in the industry handled obtuse machines that produced loud mechanical sounds on a daily basis. This constant exposure to high levels of noise caused workers to experience hearing loss, nausea, anxiety, stress, headaches, aggressive behavior, and changes in mood. Government action was never taken to protect workers in the industry because the workers were still capable of effectively performing their duties (Bijsterveld 2008). It can be understood that the health of the workers was not of much concern to the government, setting the trend for the government’s apathetic response to noise pollution. It turns out that the total environmental noise has been on the rise since its dawn. It was estimated in 1991 that environmental noise increased 10% during the 1980’s (Goines and Hagler 2007). Urbanization has been escalating since the Industrial Revolution and with urbanization comes the escalation of concentrated noise. The human population is ceaselessly increasing as well which increases the total magnitude of environmental noise. Easy access to transportation in modern society has made people more mobile, leading to noisier transportation vehicles, and society’s constant desire for technological advancement has led to the necessity for noisier equipment (Bijsterveld 2008). If actions aren’t taken to dial back the growth of noise pollution, then its effects will continue to exponentially spread across a wider range of victims due to the inevitable factors mentioned before.

Civilization constantly strives to surround itself in a visually appealing environment. Houses are cleaned before family gatherings, garbage is picked up from beaches and parks, etc. Living on Long Island, New York, there have been numerous times that plans to build wind turbines to promote renewable energy have been opposed and shut down due to their ugly appearances. It’s clear that pleasing visual environments are desired, but why aren’t pleasing acoustic environments desired as well? “Unlike our eyes, which we can shut to exclude unwanted visual input, we cannot voluntarily shut our ears to exclude unwanted auditory input. Our hearing mechanisms are always ‘on’ even when we are asleep” (Goines and Hagler 2007, 88). Since we can’t “turn off” our ears, we must “turn off” the unwanted noise. Of course not all destructive sound can be eradicated, but humanity’s technological advancement can be shaped to prevent noise pollution. For example, the development of quieter transportation vehicles would drastically reduce the magnitude of excessive noise and therefore bring peace to the acoustic environments of millions. Limits can be set as to how close one could live to an airport in order to prevent constant exposure to aviation noise. Just making others aware of noise pollution and the effects that come with it can create a solution; it will not only make people strive to live healthier lives but will also cause the government to take effective actions against the issue if a formidable amount of citizens request this safety.

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