According to the World Health Organization, excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, cause heart attacks, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.
The overlooked threat of noise pollution can cause a number of short- and long-term health problems, such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, poorer work and school performance, hearing impairment and more. Even low-level office noise can increase health risks and lower task motivation for workers, according to Cornell researchers.
Children, night workers, those who cannot afford to live in quiet residential areas, chronically ill and elderly people are more vulnerable to noise. Noise pollution at night can lead to an increase in medical visits and spending on sleeping pills, which affects families’ budgets and countries’ health expenditure. According to the WHO, impairment of early childhood development and education caused by noise may have lifelong effects on academic achievement and health. Noise pollution can even lead to deaths from heart disease.
What Is Noise Pollution?
Noise pollution is generally defined as regular exposure to elevated sound levels that may lead to adverse effects in humans or other living organisms. According to the World Health Organization, sound levels less than 70 dB are not damaging to living organisms, regardless of how long or consistent the exposure is. Exposure for more than 8 hours to constant noise beyond 85 dB may be hazardous. If you work for 8 hours daily in close proximity to a busy road or highway, you are very likely exposed to traffic noise pollution around 85dB.
This type of pollution is so omnipresent in today’s society that we often fail to even notice it anymore:
- street traffic sounds from cars, buses, pedestrians, ambulances etc.
- construction sounds like drilling or other heavy machinery in operation
- airports, with constant elevated sounds from air traffic, i.e. planes taking off or landing
- workplace sounds, often common in open-space offices
- constant loud music in or near commercial venues
- industrial sounds like fans, generators, compressor, mills
- train stations traffic
- household sounds, from the television set to music playing on the stereo or computer, vacuum cleaners, fans and coolers, washing machines, dishwashers, lawnmowers etc.
- events involving fireworks, firecrackers, loudspeakers etc.
- conflicts generate noise pollution through explosions, gunfire etc. The dysfunctions, in this case, are likely caused by the conflict and insecurity and less by the noise pollution in itself, although that compounds stress levels too.
Human Diseases Caused by Noise Pollution
Whether we realize we are subjected to it or not, noise pollution can be hazardous to our health in various ways.
- Hypertension is, in this case, a direct result of noise pollution caused elevated blood levels for a longer period of time.
- Hearing loss can be directly caused by noise pollution, whether listening to loud music in your headphones or being exposed to loud drilling noises at work, heavy air or land traffic, or separate incidents in which noise levels reach dangerous intervals, such as around140 dB for adult or 120 dB for children.
- Sleep disturbances are usually caused by constant air or land traffic at night, and they are a serious condition in that they can affect everyday performance and lead to serious diseases.
- Child development. Children appear to be more sensitive to noise pollution, and a number of noise-pollution-related diseases and dysfunctions are known to affect children, from hearing impairment to psychological and physical effects. Also, children who regularly use music players at high volumes are at risk of developing hearing dysfunctions. In 2001, it was estimated that 12.5% of American children between the ages of 6 to 19 years had impaired hearing in one or both ears
- Various cardiovascular dysfunctions. Elevated blood pressure caused by noise pollution, especially during the night, can lead to various cardiovascular diseases.
- Dementia isn’t necessarily caused by noise pollution, but its onset can be favored or compounded by noise pollution.
- Psychological dysfunctions and noise annoyance. Noise annoyance is, in fact, a recognized name for an emotional reaction that can have an immediate impact.
Effects of Noise Pollution on Wildlife and Marine Life
Human noise can have ripple effects on long-lived plants and trees that can last for decades even after the sources of noise subside. Many plants and trees rely on birds and other animals to deliver pollen from one flower or tree to the next, or to disperse their seeds, but many animals are adapting to the noise by changing their behavior or moving to quieter locales.
Consequently, noise pollution is altering the landscape of plants and trees, which depend on noise-affected animals to pollinate them and spread their seeds. Some plants do worse in noisy areas while others seem to do better, depending on how the community of creatures around them changes. The ripple effects can be far reaching and long lasting, especially for trees, which often take decades to grow from seedlings into adults.
By changing the fine-tuned balance between predator and prey detection and avoidance and interfering with the use of sounds in communication, especially in relation to reproduction and navigation, noise can have a detrimental effect on animals, increasing their risk of death. Hearing loss and rapid increase in heart rate are some of the ill-effects of noise pollution on animals. High intensity sound induces fear, which can force species to abandon their habitat. In loud places, studies have found that some birds have to sing at higher frequencies, bats and owls can have trouble finding prey, terrestrial insectivores lose habitat by avoiding areas with roads and construction, frogs can struggle to find mates, a population’s evolutionary trajectory can be altered by sapping resources normally devoted to other activities and thus lead to profound genetic and evolutionary consequences, various species experiencing hearing loss and the reduction of usable habitat that noisy areas may cause, which in the case of endangered species may be part of the path to extinction
Noise pollution is becoming so ubiquitous that it is threatening biodiversity – even the protected animals living in National Parks in the U.S. are unable to escape the disturbing sounds as they are exposed to chronic levels of noise, which are audible during more than one quarter of daylight hours at more than half of 55 sites in 14 National Parks and at 12 sites, anthropogenic noise can be heard more than half the time.
As the Oceanic Preservation Society states, “Sound is to underwater creatures as sight is to humans.” Man-made noise is disrupting life below the surface where almost every living creature depends on sound as a primary sense for mating, communicating, hunting, and survival. Since the mid-1960s, the amount of commercial vessel traffic in Earth’s oceans has nearly doubled, resulting in an almost 16-fold increase in background noise intensity.
The rising level of intense underwater sound produced by industrial ocean noise, oil and gas exploration, shipping traffic, seismic surveys, military sonar and other man-made sources can afflict marine life with a lethal condition commonly known as ‘the Bends’ and poses a significant long-term threat to whales, dolphins, fish and other marine species from the individual animal’s well-being, right through to its reproduction, communication, migration and even survival of the species.
The “auditory scene” derived from sounds provides marine animals with a three dimensional view of the world and extends far beyond the visual scene. Artificial noise in the environment that alters the marine organism’s ability to detect and analyze its auditory scene has the potential to cause a detrimental impact on the life of the animal as well as the survival of the species. Even short exposures to low-intensity, low-frequency sound can wreak havoc on the balance systems of squid, cuttlefish and octopi, but the impact of continuous, high-intensity noise pollution in the oceans could be devastating.
Military sonar and ship engine noise can send a deafening tidal wave of noise for miles as sound in the water travels five times faster than on land. Whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that have been caught in the wake of sonar have died of cerebral hemorrhaging or intentionally beached themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid the ear-splitting resonance. Even oil and gas surveys have been shown to damage fish and dramatically reduce catch rates
Our oceans are no longer quiet. Thousands of oil drills, sonars, seismic survey devices, coastal recreational watercraft and shipping vessels are now populating our waters, and that is a serious cause of noise pollution for marine life. Whales are among the most affected, as their hearing helps them orient themselves, feed and communicate. Noise pollution thus interferes with cetaceans’ (whales and dolphins) feeding habits, reproductive patterns and migration routes, and can even cause hemorrhage and death.
Other than marine life, land animals are also affected by noise pollution in the form of traffic, firecrackers etc., and birds are especially affected by the increased air traffic.
Social and Economic Costs of Noise Pollution
The World Health Organization estimates that one out of three people in Europe is harmed by traffic noise. More than the purely medical effects of noise pollution on the individual, there is a significant social and economic impact. Since noise pollution leads to sleep disturbance, it affects the individual’s work performance during the day, it leads to hypertension and cardiovascular disease and costs the health system additional time and money, and it negatively affects school performance in children.
How can we control Noise Pollution?
According to a WHO report to the UN Conference on Environment; of all environmental problems, noise is the easiest to control”. But the question of control will arise only after those in awareness among the people of the need for control and for the government to find some solution for it.
- The first approach has been to reduce noise at source. Design and fabrication of silencing devices and their use in aircraft engines, trucks, cars, motorcycles, industrial machines and home appliances would be an effective measure. Protection to workers can be provided through wearing devices such as earplugs and earmuffs.
- Making a change in design and operation of machines, vibration control, sound proof cabins and sound-absorbing materials can reduce it.
- Prescribing noise limits for vehicular traffic, ban on honking of horns in certain areas and planning main traffic arteries, industrial establishments, amusement areas, residential colonies, creation of silent zones near schools and hospitals and resigning of building to make them noise proof. Other measures can involve reduction of traffic density in residential areas giving preferences to mass public transport system.
- Control of Indoor Noise. Where outdoor noise levels have been high, the following methods can be applied for reducing their effect.
- Locate in the building as far as possible from noise source. The noise level
drops about 6dB each time the distance is doubled.
- Trees and shrubs may be planted in front of building to provide some
absorption for the sound.
- Locate non-critical areas such as corridors kitchens, bathrooms, elevators
and service spaces in the noisy side and critical areas each as bedrooms and
living spaces on the quiet side.
- Back to back bathrooms or toilets should be avoided unless they are effectively sound isolated. Bathrooms, kitchen and laundry rooms should not be adjacent to the floor.
- Bathroom walls, floor and ceiling should be sound insulated using construction of high sound insulation glasses.
- Noisy toilets, is bettered by quiet siphon jet type flush toilets should be installed to reduce the noise from the source. Commode seats with double siphon system are now available and may be adopted wherever possible.
- Road Noise. Vegetation buffer zones must be created in different parts of the city. Efforts should be made for roadside plantations.
- An Urgent Need for Legislation to Control Noise Pollution. We have seen that in India, in absences of a specific legislation for control and prevention of the noise pollution, one has to seek provisions in various branches of law and regulations. There has been no doubt that the available provisions in various branches of law and regulations. There has been no doubt that the available provisions in various branches of law are adequate, unscientific and crude. In most of the developed countries specific legislations have been made and scientific methods for investigation of noise pollution have been invented. The science of audiometer and other branched related to sound have been developed and it becomes comfortable to device various legal provisions to control and prevent noise pollution.
As present, there is no specific and detailed legislation to control the noise pollution. However, there is an urgent need that the Central Government of India should manage to get a legislation passed for the control of noise pollution. Some legislation regarding water and air pollution has been made in India.
Government should pass the Noise Pollution control Act to meet special India condition. Apart from such kind of Central legislation, there should be a city noise control code for all major cities in India. Creation of unnecessary noise has to be prohibited and should be punishable under law.
- Education. People can be educated through radio, TV, newsreels in cinema halls about noise pollution. In the family, elders can teach children to keep the radio volume low, low voice talking not to horn unnecessarily on the roads, avoid quarreling amongst each other and so on. There should be complete ban of loudspeakers form 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.
- Public Awakening and the Control. It is also important that public awakening is also very essential for the control and prevention of the noise pollution. In India, most of the persons lack any idea about the ways in which noise pollution could be controlled. Very few scientist are aware of the problem and its control. Masses are still ignorant of the grave effects of the noise pollution. In this regard television, radio, internet, and newspapers should give a campaign for wide publicity.
It is also true that in the present set up of industrialization one should be able to face the noise pollution to a certain extent. If somehow form a machinery noise producing gadget has been taken out completely, in such cases noiseless machinery may become more dangerous, then with noise creating gadget. Take the example of a locomotive engine. Noise of a locomotive engine especially the noise of its whistle has been very useful in keeping humans and animals away from the tracks. In such cases a limit of noise in terms of decibels may be recommended.
The most important body of people who are or should be involved in noise control are the manufactories of noise-producing devices, since in their hands lies the most effective way of controlling noise at the source. However, we live in a society where even the most enlightened manufacturers need an incentive to invest in the extensive research, development, design and tooling that might be required to reduce noise emissions from their products. Such incentives are provided, in essence, by legislation enforced either centrally or locally. To appreciate the number of people and organizations involved in legislation for noise control and with ways in which they influence this legislation require a look at the history of governments concern with problem of noise.
More Tips for Avoiding Noise Pollution
- Wear earplugs whenever exposed to elevated noise levels
- Maintain a level of around 35 dB in your bedroom at night, and around 40 dB in your house during the day
- If possible, choose your Residential Area as far removed from heavy traffic as you can
- Avoid prolonged use of earphones, especially at elevated sound levels
- If possible, avoid jobs with regular exposure to elevated sound levels
*Dr. Uche Enumah (MBBS, MPH, PGD [HSE MGT], IGC [NEBOSH London]) is the National Secretary, Society of Occupational & Environmental Health Physicians of Nigeria (SOEHPON) and Nigeria National/Country Secretary for International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH)