Noise Pollution: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention

What do people think of when they hear the term “noise?” Do they see it as a pollutant, or do they just overlook it and believe that it is an unavoidable part of everyday life? Environmental noise has traditionally been dismissed as being inevitable and has not been seen as potentially detrimental to human health (Murphy and King 2014, xi). History provides little research which shows the possible health effects of noise. This could be because noise pollution has only significantly increased in the last century. The increase in technology and man-made machines has contributed to this pollution. Such anthropogenic noise, which could be considered unnatural, can have significant effects on the health of humans and nature. It can lead to many physiological and psychological disorders. It can even impair the learning ability of many children. With all this in mind, there needs to be a way to limit noise pollution. How can humans continue to innovate and advance while also limiting negative effects?

Before I started my Soundscapes class, I had never thought about noise and what noise pollution really is. The noise and sounds around me seemed to just blend into the environment. I never gave the topic of noise pollution much thought. After all, what could be so important about noise? Throughout the semester, I began to gain a better understanding of noise pollution and the problems associated with it. Sounds in the environment were easier to recognize, and I noticed that I was beginning to pay more attention to any small sound that seemed foreign, therefore more easily recognizing noise pollution and its annoyance. The history of noise and noise pollution has been relatively short. People rarely gave much thought to it until R. Murray Schafer started working on a project called the World Soundscape Project. The goal of this project was to find the balance between the noise of human activity and the sonic environment so that both can exist in harmony. R. Murray Schafer believed that sounds could be classified in multiple ways. One is according to their physical properties, which is acoustics. Another is according to the way sounds are perceived, which is psychoacoustics. Using this term, he has tried to help people get a better grasp of the sounds that compose their environment. Learning about psychoacoustics is a very big part of understanding noise pollution. The way noise is perceived and how it has evolved is the key to recognizing noise pollution as a major problem throughout the world.

The increase in noise pollution has been significantly higher in the last century than ever before. It is estimated that noise levels in the United States have increased more than 11% over the last decade (Staples 1996, 143). One of the main reasons for this is anthropogenic noise, which is noise that comes from man-made machines. Advances in technology have allowed humans to build cars, planes, and other construction machinery that produce a lot of noise. Sounds created by these machines are annoying and unhealthy. Noise annoyance is considered any sound that people perceive as irritable, bothers them, or creates a feeling of stress. Annoyance continues to increase because people are in constant need of transportation and construction. Some authors suggest that “humans have drastically changed much of the world’s acoustic background with anthropogenic sounds that are markedly different in pitch and amplitude than sounds in most natural habitats” (Francis et al. 2009, 1415). The biggest increase in noise can be seen in large cities. New York City, for example, sounds extremely different today than it did in the early 1900s. The change in noise comes largely from urbanization and innovations in technology. It is predicted by some that noise levels would continue to rise at least as rapidly as the growth of the general population (Susan Staples 1996). Due to the great number of people that live in the city, the background noise heard seems to be inescapable. According to Murphy and King, “noise [is] being emitted from the very depths below the ground to the skies overhead and seemingly everywhere in between” (2014, 1). A huge difference can be seen in what New York sounded like in the 50s compared to now. Tony Schwartz, an American sound archivist and designer, made an album called New York 19, released in 1954. This album is full of recordings from New York City, and can be heard here. A recording made by a classmate, Brett Lardaro, can be compared to the ones made by Schwartz. The recording can be heard here:

This soundscape was recorded in 2015. The noise from traffic and human voices is much higher than it was in 1954, and the increase in noise pollution can easily be recognized. With an increase in noise pollution comes an increase in health effects.

The auditory senses are unique from all of our other senses. Unlike vision, sound cannot be shut out. People can always close their eyes to get away from an undesired sight, but they cannot shut off their hearing to stop listening to an unpleasant noise. This is what makes noise pollution so hard to deal with and why it causes so much annoyance. People are constantly hearing noise, and their only adaptation is to get used to it or try to ignore it. Constant exposure to noise can have some serious effects on our health. Many hearing impairments result from noise and the threshold of hearing can be greatly increased from noise exposure. Authors Stephen A. Stansfield and Mark P. Matheson suggest that “noise interferes in complex task performance, modifies social behaviour, and causes annoyance… hearing impairments due to noise are a direct consequence of the effects of sound energy on the inner ear” (2003, 243). Susan Staples’ s research seems to agree with this statement. She claims that “prolonged exposure to environmental noise has been related to impaired scholastic performance and learning ability, higher blood pressure, and lowered tolerance for frustration” (1996, 143). Task performance is greatly affected in children. When exposed to white noise for a long time, children may get used to the noise and their performance won’t be affected. However, once that noise is shut off, their task performance decreases and the effects of prolonged noise exposure are seen. Studies show that traffic is one of the biggest contributors to noise pollution, therefore having some serious effects on the task performance of humans.

Because of the constant need for humans to travel, traffic noise affects people throughout the world, especially in big cities. The large number of automobiles in cities creates a constant background noise. This noise has been shown to affect the health of many people. It is estimated that “at least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic related noise alone in Western Europe” (Murphy and King 2014, xi). Traffic noise leads to stress a majority of the time. Being constantly exposed to noise creates a feeling of uneasiness and irritates many people. Stress is extremely detrimental to human health, and can lead to many psychological disorders. Stress-causing annoyance from traffic noise is present both during the day and at night. Some studies show that one in three individuals in Europe are annoyed by noise during the daytime, and one in five experience a decrease in sleep quality because of noise (Murphy and King 2014, 52). Sleep cycles, in particular the REM cycle, can be greatly affected. People that are exposed to loud noise during the day can have worse nights of sleep and feel less rested the next day. Authors Murphy and King conclude, “if the disturbance is at a level that is severe enough, it can lead to sleep deprivation which can seriously affect the physical and mental health of an individual” (2014, 61). Noise during the night can also play a role in sleep cycles. Many people believe that white noise is good when sleeping because it blocks out all other noises. However, this has been proven to be incorrect. White noise may help people fall asleep, but it doesn’t actually contribute to a good night of rest. It can limit REM cycles which leads to feeling less rested. These effects of noise pollution on humans are vast, and some effects can even be seen on animals.

Noise pollution has been linked with declining populations of birds and other animals. Anthropogenic noise impairs the ability of birds to reproduce, communicate, and stay away from predators. There has been some research done that shows the relationship between loud environments and the population size of birds. The data shows that populations of birds are smaller in areas with more noise. Some authors suggest that “individuals that settle in noisy habitats may have reduced reproductive success because noise interferes with detection of approaching predators” (Francis et al. 2009, 1415). High levels of noise block out the sound of incoming predators, which affects the reproductive abilities of birds. Protecting the eggs and their young is very difficult for birds in loud environments. Loud habitats also cause birds to migrate. If the reproductive abilities are better in quieter surroundings, birds will migrate to those better suited for survival. This shows that noise can affect not only humans, but birds as well.

There have been some efforts to limit noise pollution, but many have been in vain. Countries all over the world, especially in Europe, have tried to place regulations to cut down noise, especially road traffic noise. Regulations that place a maximum limit on the level of noise have been useful to reduce some of the pollution, but have not been extremely effective. Many people would argue that the research that regulations are based on is very poor. Many research studies are considered inconclusive because they do not take into account psychological factors and effect modifiers. The studies are simply based on the loudness of noise. This has been shown to be a poor representation of what people actually think of the noise. There can be big differences between what a noise sounds like and what people actually perceive. Some noises may sound loud but people would not consider them pollution because they are not unwanted sounds, and do not create annoyance. For example, the sound of a waterfall may be significantly higher than that of a car engine, but most people would agree that the car engine is annoying while the waterfall is pleasant. Susan Staples states, “reviewers conclude that to identify and understand non-auditory health effects it is necessary to rigorously design studies and to take into account individual differences in reactions to noise and intervening psychological factors such as perceived control” (1996, 144). Not all people react the same to a noise, which means that the only way to get an accurate representation of noise pollution is to take into account how people individually perceive a noise. Staples believes that “an understanding of the factors responsible for individual differences in reactions to environmental noise may be necessary not only to accurately predict public response but also to determine what groups need protection from health effects” (1996, 145). Different groups of people may need more protection than other based on how noise will affect each group individually. This is why it is so important to take individual perception into account.

Many people believe that noise should not be completely eliminated. Instead, only some noise that people believe is truly detrimental to their health should be removed. Research studies that take into account individual perceptions of annoyance help set the boundaries between tolerable noise and intolerable noise.  Authors that have done research on such topics state “we have identified that the whole context of the noise, its source, distance from the noise, its longevity and perceived level of control over it, all play a part in a person’s response to it and whether they would want to see it eliminated from their soundscape” (Mags et al. 2006, 2394). Such authors believe that some noise is in fact good, and makes the environment sound more natural. If people were to remove all noise, the environment would sound very unnatural and unpleasant. Some people may like specific types of noise, which makes it crucial to use the opinions of individuals when placing regulations and creating public policy.

This last century has brought with it many advancements in technology and has helped people realize what noise is. The history of noise has been relatively short, but a lot has been achieved in the last 50 years. Most people are unaware of what noise really is and never really pay much attention to it, just like I first did at the beginning of this semester. I was able to grasp just a tiny portion of “soundscapes,” a very vast and virtually limitless topic. Soundscapes helped me get more connected with the environment through sounds, and helped me understand what noise means to the environment that I am a part of. Using this knowledge, I, and many others, have realized how many negative health effects can arise from noise pollution. Annoyance, mental disorders, and sleep deprivation are all negative effects that continue to increase with rising levels of noise. Limitations are needed so that it does not reach dangerous levels. Some legislation and public policy has been put into effect, but it is not nearly enough to stop the noise. Better research is required in order for the government to truly understand what the consequences of this pollution are, and to come up with better legislation. Many would argue that not all noise should be removed, because it would leave the environment sounding very unnatural. Instead, noise that is truly affecting health and performance should be the limited or removed completely. We cannot know whether better research will be conducted or not, but if limits are not set on some noise, it will get to an intolerable level for everyone. A balance between the sounds that people want to hear, and the ones that they don’t, has to be found so that everyone can live a healthy and happy life, free of unnatural, annoying sounds.


Works Cited

Adams, Mags, Trevor Cox, Gemma Moore, Ben Croxford, Mohamed Refaee, and Steve Sharples. 2006. “Sustainable soundscapes: Noise policy and the urban experience.” Urban Studies 43 (13): 2385-98.

Francis, Clinton D., Catherine P. Ortega, and Alexander Cruz. 2009. “Noise pollution changes avian communities and species interactions.” Current Biology 19 (16): 1415-9.

Murphy, Enda, Eoin A. King. 2014. “Environmental noise pollution: Noise mapping, public health, and policy.” Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Stansfeld, Stephen A. and Mark P. Matheson. 2003. “Noise pollution: Non-auditory effects on health.” British Medical Bulletin 68 (1): 243-57.

Staples, Susan L. 1996. “Human response to environmental noise: Psychological research and public policy.” American Psychologist 51 (2): 143-50.

“The World Soundscape Project.” World Soundscape Project. Accessed November 12, 2015.

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