Noise is just noise, right? You learn to tune it out and, unless it’s really loud, you don’t worry about it. You definitely wouldn’t worry about its effects on your heart — would you?
As far back as 1972, awareness of the adverse health effects of noise pollution was so strong that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed the Noise Control Act to establish “a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.” This naturally leads to the question, “How bad can noise pollution really be?”
What Is Noise Pollution?
Noise pollution isn’t just rush-hour traffic, living near an airport, or working near a long-standing construction site. To truly understand noise pollution, let’s try a little experiment, either in real life or in your imagination:
Go to your favorite spot in nature. Keep your headphones packed away (or better yet, leave them at home). Now turn off your smartphone. Just be there, and note what you hear. Water? Bugs? Maybe your dog sniffing something “interesting”?
Odds are, the silence is almost overwhelming. You’re exposed daily to even more noise than you realize. Appliances, computers, traffic, the constant hum of the furnace or air conditioner — that’s just the environmental component. Use of headphones for video games and music as well as the din of socializing in public spaces contribute, too; so much so, in fact, that researchers consider them a separate category: social noise.
So what is noise pollution? It’s any sound that reduces your quality of life. That simple definition, however, has more packed into it than you might suspect.
How Does Noise Pollution Affect My Health?
The most obvious effect is noise-induced hearing loss. Any noise above 85 decibels (dB; a measurement of sound intensity) can damage hearing. Everyday life is full of noise above 85 dB: a gas lawn mower (91 dB), hair dryer (94 dB), headphones turned too loud (100 dB), and a plane takeoff (120 dB) are just a few commonplace noise sources that can damage your hearing. At 85 dB, hearing damage occurs after about 8 hours of exposure, but at 91 dB — only a 6-dB increase — damage occurs after about 2 hours.
It is well established that environmental noise pollution reduces learning outcomes and cognitive performance in children. The more consistently a classroom is exposed to noise from aircraft, road traffic, or trains, the poorer the children’s reading ability, memory, and standardized-testing performance compared to children not exposed to noise at school.
Noise pollution has long been linked to cardiovascular disease, and a recent article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology offers a suggestion as to why: Noise triggers a stress reaction that includes the fight-or-flight response of the nervous system and an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol. Over time, this repeated flooding of the system with stress hormones can damage the cardiovascular system.
Other than hearing damage, it’s been established that sleep disturbance is the most harmful effect of environmental noise pollution. Short-term effects of poor sleep are mood changes, daytime sleepiness, and decreased cognitive abilities. One significant long-term effect of poor sleep is cardiovascular disease.
A study in the Journal of Sound and Vibration found that those in homes exposed to road traffic on one side — even at a maximum of 68 dB, about the noise level of average TV audio — experienced annoyance and a reduction in daytime relaxation and psychological well-being. But those ill effects were reduced significantly if residents moved to the side of the home not exposed to the road-traffic noise.
How Can I Protect Myself?
Whether you choose inexpensive, all-purpose, drugstore disposables or custom-molded earplugs, you can find hearing protection that fits your budget or needs. Usually there is a noise-reduction ratio (NRR) number associated; the higher the number, the better the softening of sound should be. Here are some common situations for which you can find over-the-counter or custom hearing protection:
- Shooting (range or hunting)
- Listening to live music
- Playing music
- Kids’ safety (use earmuffs, as they are safer and easier for kids to use)
Another form of hearing protection? Simply turn down the TV or music, whether you’re listening with headphones or speakers. A general rule is to listen to your music device for no more than 60 minutes at 60 percent volume.
Personal technology solutions
Masking. Depending on the source of the noise, this could be ideal. Masking is when one sound is used to draw focus away from other, less pleasant sounds. White noise, classical music, and nature sounds — all at low volume — are just some examples of masking using headphones or speakers. Plus, there are plenty of white noise and nature-sound apps available for your smartphone.
Noise-canceling headphones. Many apps that are labeled as noise-canceling apps are actually masking apps. True noise canceling can only be achieved with a combination of a microphone, circuitry, and a speaker, so true noise canceling is only found in noise-canceling headphones. They identify problematic noise and create a sound that neutralizes the incoming, problematic sound. In essence, it truly cancels sounds. In addition, the headphones are made with more sound-absorbent materials than traditional headphones.
How Can I Reduce the Noise Pollution Around Me?
Sound waves can be absorbed — use it to your advantage! Here are just a few ideas to help you look at your home a little differently. How else could you set up your living space to soundproof it?
Floors. Do you have hard floors? Consider installing carpet — the shaggier the better. For a simpler, more affordable solution, get area rugs to put in rooms that generate a lot of noise — think TV, laundry, and exercise rooms.
Furniture. Is your furniture out in the middle of the room? Push it up against the walls to absorb the sound waves that make it through the wall. The more overstuffed your furniture, the more sound is absorbed. Add accent pillows, drape throws or blankets — anything tasteful that absorbs sound.
Bookcases. Put bookcases against walls that get a lot of noise exposure. The bookcase absorbs sound like a second wall, and the paper from the books absorbs plenty as well.
Curtains. Even thin curtains will absorb sound. Already have curtains on all the windows? Swap them out for heavier ones to add extra absorption on sides of the house that get more outside noise.
Appliances. If possible, close the door when running loads of laundry. Start the dishwasher when you won’t be in the kitchen for the rest of the evening. If larger appliances are in unfinished areas — think laundry in an unfinished basement — hang old blankets, towels, or clothes on the walls to act as sound absorbers.