Noise pollution may get less attention than air or water pollution, but it can be just as harmful. It can cause hearing loss, among other physical and mental health problems. We need to understand the effects of noise pollution and consider how we can reduce noise in our lives.
Nature can produce very loud sounds, but they don’t last long enough to be considered noise pollution. For that, we need machinery or other man-made gadgets.
People who live near a busy highway or airport know more about noise pollution than they want to, but we have plenty of other sources: construction equipment, emergency generators, lawn mowers, leaf blowers—and our TVs, ear buds, and concerts.
What is noise?
Physicists have a very precise definition of noise with no implied value judgment. For most of us, though, it means an unwanted, unpleasant, loud sound.
When it comes to noise pollution and its damage, however, it doesn’t matter if we consider a sound pleasant or unpleasant. We can consider the sound of a washing machine annoying, but it probably won’t harm our hearing. And we can put in our earbuds and crank music up to damaging levels and not think of it as loud.
Loudness is a matter of perception, though. Technically the problems result from the intensity of sound, which is measurable.
We measure sound in decibels (dB) on a logarithmic scale. 0 dB is considered the threshold of hearing. Normal conversation is about 60 dB. A gas-powered lawnmower or leaf blower is about 85 dB.
Logarithmic means that each increase of 10 on the scale represents 10 times the intensity. So a 20 dB sound is 10 times the intensity of a 10 dB sound. A 30 dB sound is 10 times more intense than that. A 100 dB sound is a billion times the intensity of a 10 dB sound. 120 dB is the threshold of pain, and that pain indicates ear injury. And, of course, even more intense sounds are possible.
Noise pollution and hearing loss
Hearing damage can start at about 80-85 dB after two hours of exposure. More intense sounds can cause damage quicker. A 90 dB sound (a motorcycle, for example) can damage hearing after about 50 minutes. A 100 dB sound can damage it after about 15 minutes. And that is the approximate level of a car horn at 16 feet or crowd noises at a football game or other sporting event.
Turn your personal listening device up full blast and you’re subjecting your ears to 105-110 dB, which can cause hearing loss in less than five minutes. A one-time, short exposure to even more intense sounds can cause immediate hearing loss.
Hearing loss can be temporary or permanent. It can range from inability to hear certain frequencies to deafness. In turn, hearing loss can lead to social isolation and increases the risk of cognitive decline.
Besides deafness, noise pollution can cause tinnitus (a persistent high-pitched buzzing or ringing in the ears) and other hearing problems.
Other effects of noise pollution
Constant loud noise brings about a stress response in your brain, including raising your blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Therefore, noise pollution can indirectly cause or worsen heart trouble and other diseases not related to hearing.
Compared to whatever is considered an average noise level, living in a noisy area raises risk of a severe stroke by 30%. Living in a quiet area can reduce it by 25%. Where you live likewise influences your chance for heart trouble and many other stress-related conditions.
Heightened stress levels can also affect mental health. People dealing with constant noise pollution become more irritated, frustrated, anxious, and angry. Noise pollution also contributes to sleep disorders.
Noise pollution can hinder conversation and other everyday activities. It can also keep us from sleeping, and sleep deprivation brings its own health problems.
In children, noise pollution can hinder concentration, cognitive performance, and the development of communication and speech. These problems, in turn, can hamper learning, relationships, confidence.
Some simple ways to reduce noise
It’s probably impossible to avoid noise pollution entirely, but we do have some control. There are steps we can take to reduce noise inside our homes and offices, noise that comes in from outside, and noise we encounter away from home or office.
Reduce noise pollution from inside the home or office
- Decide rooms where you want quiet and keep your noisiest machines as far away as possible.
- If possible, close doors between your quiet space and noisy machinery.
- Furniture absorbs a lot of noise, so use it strategically. For example, if you live in an apartment and have a noisy neighbor, put bookshelves along the shared wall.
- Wall to wall carpeting and vinyl flooring have their drawbacks, but they’re great for reducing noise.
- Window treatments also make a big difference.
- Put blenders or other noisy machinery on sound-absorbing padding.
- Proper maintenance can reduce noise from appliances. Or consider replacing them if they’re too noisy. Newer models are probably quieter.
- Keep the volume on your television, gaming system, or stereo at a reasonable level. Turn it off when you’re not using it.
- Learn to appreciate silence.
Speaking of silence, composer John Cage once conducted an interesting experiment. He went into an anechoic chamber to experience the absence of sound. To his surprise, he heard two constant sounds, one high pitched and the other lower.
As he questioned experts about it, he learned that the high pitch sound was his body’s nervous system. The low-pitched sound was his blood circulating through his body. These sounds are always present with us, but other sounds drown them out.
Therefore, the only way to experience the absence of sound is to go totally deaf.
So consider silence the absence of intentional sound. Too many people these days find it threatening. And they may be damaging their hearing in the ways they avoid it. You don’t need background sounds to read, work puzzles, enjoy nature outside your window, knit, or any of a number of activities that don’t produce their own sounds.
Reduce noise pollution from outside the home or office
- When you’re inside and the noise is outside, you can close windows to reduce it.
- Upgrading insulation and windows can reduce noise a great deal.
- It’s amazing how much difference installing a fence or planting a hedgerow can reduce noise. It makes it more pleasant both inside and out in the yard.
- Plant trees strategically.
- Mask unwanted sounds with white noise. It doesn’t have to be from a white noise generator. A fan can work just as well. Or you can buy white noise CDs if you still use that technology.
Reduce noise pollution outdoors or away from home
- Shutting your car windows can reduce sound intensity.
- Ear plugs help in a lot of situations. For example, the sound from your own leaf blower is a lot more intense for you than your neighbor’s down the street. Ear plugs also tone down excessive sound at a concert—whether you’re in the audience or onstage.
- Noise-canceling headphones work even better. They’re very important for workers in factories or on construction sites.
- Keep the muffler on your car well maintained. And the more common electric vehicles become, the quieter our streets and highways will be.
- Support and advocate for local ordinances to control noise.
The effects of noise pollution on the rest of nature.
This post has mainly considered the causes and effects of noise pollution on human life. But it damages all other life just as much. If you think it’s hard to carry on conversations when you live under a flightpath, consider all the animals, birds, and insects trying to communicate over the racket.
And that’s just the noise that travels through air. Motorboats, ships, and worse send unnatural soundwaves underwater that disrupt marine life. Or outright kill it.
Noise pollution directly threatens biodiversity.
Most people probably don’t think about noise pollution very much except at times when it annoys them. We ought to think about it more, and especially how to reduce noise in the environment.
25+ easy and practical ways to reduce noise pollution at home or offices / Conserve Energy Future
Loud noise can cause hearing loss / Centers for Disease Control
Loud noise: the not-so-silent killer is back / Kimberly Rae Miller, AARP. July 8, 2021
What are the health effects of noise pollution? / Helen Millar, Medical News Today. December 21, 2020