Reference: Millar H. (2020) What are the health effects of noise pollution? Medical News Today. December 21.
Noise pollution occurs when unwanted sounds enter the environment. The potential health effects of noise pollution include increased stress levels, sleep disturbance, or hearing damage.
Some examples of noise pollution sources include:
- motorized vehicles
This article looks at noise pollution in more detail and its potential health effects. We will also discuss ways to reduce noise pollution.
What is noise pollution?
Pollution occurs when a contaminant enters the environment, causing undesirable effects. There are several types of pollution, including:
- air pollution
- water pollution
- light pollution
Noise pollution is the spread of unwanted sounds into the environment.
Noise is almost always around us, whether natural, such as birdsong, or from human activity, such as vehicle traffic. However, noise build-up can have a significant impact on the well-being of humans and animals.
Compared to other types of pollution, people often overlook noise pollution as a health hazard. A 2018 review notes it as an underreported factor. However, many people are experiencing a rise in noise pollution due to an increase in human activity.
Impact on mental health
Unwanted sounds can have a range of mental health effects.
The brain is always monitoring sounds for signs of danger, even during sleep. As a result, frequent or loud noise can trigger anxiety or stress. With continued exposure to noise pollution, a person’s sensitivity to stress increases.
People living with noise pollution may feel irritable, on edge, frustrated, or angry. If a person feels they cannot control the amount of noise in their environment, its impact on their mental health intensifies.
Environmental noise is also a common cause of sleep disturbance. A person may experience:
- difficulty falling asleep
- inability to stay asleep
- waking too early
Sounds can also reduce the depth and quality of sleep, altering the amount of rapid eye movement sleep. This can impact a person’s mood and ability to concentrate.
Impact on physical health
The physical health effects of noise pollution can occur as a direct or indirect result of noise exposure.
In severe cases, loud sounds can directly cause hearing impairment. Some forms of noise-induced hearing impairment include:
- abnormal loudness perception
- tinnitus, which causes a persistent high-pitched ringing in the ears
- paracusis, or distorted hearing
Some research also suggests that noise pollution may indirectly contribute to other health conditions.
According to a 2018 review, there is evidence that short-term exposure to noise pollution can temporarily raise blood pressure and increase blood viscosity. There is also an association between long-term exposure to noise and higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
The review authors suggest that this may occur due to the impact of noise pollution on stress hormone levels and the nervous system. Over time, this stress may contribute to the development of disease.
Another 2018 study in Canada found that preeclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy, was more common among pregnant people exposed to higher levels of noise pollution.
Impact on children
According to the 2018 review, children are particularly vulnerable to noise-induced hearing loss. A 2014 study found that chronic exposure to noise for 8 hours a day could cause permanent hearing changes in children, including the inability to hear certain frequencies.
An article in The Indian Journal of Pediatrics notes that noise pollution can affect a child’s hearing at any stage of development, including fetal, infancy, and adolescence.
Additionally, unwanted or loud noise at school or home may make it challenging for children to learn. They may experience more difficulty with:
- communication and speech development
- cognitive performance
This may affect a child’s behavior, their ability to form relationships, and their confidence. They can also develop high blood pressure due to chronic exposure to sound.
How to reduce noise pollution
In some cases, noise pollution is unavoidable. However, there are ways to reduce noise levels inside the home. A person can try:
- Reducing noise from appliances: Items, such as air conditioning units, heaters, fans, and other appliances, can contribute to overall noise levels in the home. Try turning them off more often or setting a timer, so they only switch on at certain times.
- Reducing noise from media devices: Consider the volume and duration of noise from music, televisions, radios, and video games. Avoid having unnecessary noise playing in the background for long periods, or listening to sounds at too high a volume. It may be useful to set aside dedicated time for watching TV or listening to music.
- Repair or replace old machinery: Old appliances, vehicles, and other items can be louder than newer models. Consider upgrading or replacing noisy household items.
- Soundproofing: Adding insulation strategically around the home can help muffle sounds from other rooms, neighbors, or outside. Rugs, carpets, and curtains may also help.
- Create more quiet time: Try to regularly set aside time for quiet activities, such as reading, puzzles, or creative hobbies. Avoid playing music or having background noise during this time.
- Ear protection: If loud noise is unavoidable, use ear protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs, to reduce its impact.
Is white noise harmful?
Some people find the sound of white noise soothing, and use it to relax or get to sleep. A 2016 study on people with sleep disorders showed that white noise was effective in masking noise pollution, which may make white noise machines beneficial for those living in noisy areas.
However, it is also important to note that white noise, as with other types of noise, can still have adverse effects. Loud or prolonged exposure may cause hearing loss at certain decibels.
Ensure that white noise machines are set at a safe volume and a safe distance away from a sleeping person before use.
When to seek help
If noise pollution affects a person’s hearing or mental health, and methods to lower noise are not effective, speaking with a doctor can help.
Depending on how noise impacts someone, they may benefit from consulting with a hearing or sleep specialist. A therapist can also help teach coping mechanisms.
For children exposed to frequent or loud noise, it is important to monitor for signs of hearing loss. Regular checkups and hearing tests can help determine if there is any damage.
Sometimes, hypersensitivity to noise can be a symptom of other conditions, such as hyperacusis. A doctor can diagnose this.
A person could also try reporting excessive noise to their local authority if it breaches legal limits. This could include noise pollution from outdoor events, venues, construction sites, or businesses.
Noise pollution significantly impacts public health. Research suggests it can raise stress, affect mental health, and contribute to developing health issues such as high blood pressure.
Direct exposure to loud or persistent noise can also lead to hearing impairment. Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of noise pollution.
It may be possible to reduce levels of noise in the home, school, or workplace with simple changes, such as soundproofing and turning off devices.