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Noise is more than annoying — it’s a public health problem

Noise “is a pollutant whose effects on health have been neglected,” the experts declare.

Noise is a public health problem, and not just because it can lead to permanent hearing loss, according to a new review article published earlier this week in The Lancet.

A team of international experts looked at all major studies conducted on the topic of noise and health, particularly those completed within the past five years, and concluded that constant noise — defined as unwanted sound — is associated with several non-hearing-related health effects, including heart disease, sleep disturbances and learning problems in children.

Noise “is a pollutant whose effects on health have been neglected,” the experts declare in the article.

Yet, that situation seems to be changing. In recent, years, an increasing number of researchers have begun to investigate the non-hearing-loss-related effects of environmental noise exposure on public health. (Environmental noise is that caused by road, rail and air traffic and by building and other types of construction.)

What they’re finding isn’t definitive, but neither is it reassuring, especially given that, as the authors of the current review article note, “noise is pervasive in urban environments and the availability of quiet places is decreasing.”

An association with heart disease

The most common response that people have to environmental noise is annoyance, explain the reviewers.

But annoyance isn’t a minor matter from a health perspective, they quickly add.

“Noise annoyance can result from noise interfering with daily activities, feelings, thoughts, sleep, or rest, and might be accompanied by negative responses, such as anger, displeasure, exhaustion, and by stress-related symptoms,” the reviewers write.

In other words, it can have a very real effect on wellbeing and health.

Research has repeatedly found, the reviewers point out, that chronic exposure to noise raises blood pressure, speeds up the heart rate and releases stress hormones — all factors associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Indeed, as I reported here in October, two recent studies found an association between chronic exposure to high levels of airplane noise and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, particularly for older people.

A disturber of sleep

The observed association between chronic environmental noise and heart disease may be linked to the disruptive effect that such noise has on sleep.

In fact, some epidemiological studies suggest, according to the authors of the review article, that nighttime exposure to chronic noise may be a more of a potential factor in heart-related health problems than daytime exposure.

Noise can be disruptive, by the way, even if it doesn’t cause people to wake up during the night.

“Repeated noise-induced arousals interfere with sleep quality through changes in sleep structure, which include delayed sleep onset and early awakenings, reduce deep (slow-wave) and rapid eye movement sleep, and an increase in time spent awake and in superficial sleep stages,” the reviewers write.

An inhibitor of learning

Research has also found an association between high levels of environmental noise and children’s cognitive performance.

“More than 20 studies have shown environmental noise exposure has a negative effect on children’s learning outcomes and cognitive performance, and that children with chronic aircraft, road traffic, or rail noise exposure at school have poorer reading ability, memory, and performance on national standardized tests than do children who are not exposed to noise at school,” the reviewers point out.

Studies that have observed children before and after their exposure to noise was minimized or eliminated (by the insulation of buildings or the closing down of airports) found improvements in cognition. This finding suggests, write the reviewers, that “noise reduction can eliminate noise effects on cognition.”

Caveats and a call for better studies

All the studies used in this review come, however, with major caveats — ones that the reviewers acknowledge. The research done to date has been primarily observational, which means it can show only a correlation between two things (chronic noise and health problems), not a cause-and-effect. Other factors that have nothing to do with noise could also explain the studies’ findings.

For example, areas with high levels of environmental noise are often home to families who are economically deprived, and such deprivation is known to affect children’s ability to learn and do well on standardized tests.

In addition, noise pollution, whether from cars or construction, is often accompanied by air pollution, which is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Still, the reviewers believe that the evidence to date is strong enough to require public action.

The “non-auditory health effects of environmental noise are manifold, serious and, because of the widespread exposure, very prevalent,” they conclude. “These factors stress the need to regulate and reduce environmental noise exposure (ideally at the source) and to enforce exposure limits to mitigate negative health consequences of chronic exposure to environmental noise.”

Unfortunately, only an abstract of the review article is available on The Lancet website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by jason myron on 11/01/2013 - 02:44 pm.

    Leaf blowers…..

    for the love of God, can we ban these monstrosities from the planet?

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 11/01/2013 - 06:50 pm.

    Then move to a farm.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2013 - 05:59 pm.


    Having lived in urban, suburban and rural settings, it’s hard not to agree completely with the allegation that noise is more than just annoying. I regard it as among the primary reasons why urban living is widely considered more stressful than the rural counterpart. Frankly, that’s been my experience, too.

    And, since most of us can’t move to a farm, as Kevin Watterson would have us do, without losing our livelihood, or many of the amenities and services to which we’ve become accustomed, the solution we’ve adopted in this society is the “suburb.” Not at all rural, despite a plethora of idyllic-sounding names for what are simply housing developments, including streets named for items or life forms that no longer exist because of the development, the suburb comes at least a little closer to that gauzy rural myth than a busy downtown condo building. That “solution” brings with it substantial costs that, as a culture, we’ve yet to really acknowledge or try to correct.

    But what about noise? Suburbs, at least in my experience, *can* be more quiet than the true city, but I don’t think it’s automatic. Often, what happens is that the *type* of noise changes, but the environment remains a noisy one, nonetheless.

    I thought the photo leading the article was a choice of more than passing interest. Folks living at the end of the runway at MSP surely have genuine issues with the noise that goes with living where they do. Does Kevin Watterson advocate that all of those people move to a rural area? Should Minneapolis, or the Met Council, or the FAA, or whoever actually controls these things buy out the residents currently in the proposed, more concentrated, flight path? That is, should your tax dollars and mine go to purchase homes that will be torn down in order to establish a “noise zone” at the end of each runway of some unspecified, but surely substantial, length and width?

    Noise problems at Lambert Field in St. Louis prompted exactly that solution, and a whole community — largely black and poor — was eliminated, with the population resettled in other areas of St. Louis County (Missouri). I happened to live about a quarter mile outside the buy-out zone, so I got used to the sound of aircraft, but I’d have preferred not to have had to make that adaptation.

    Similar accommodations might need to be made at some point for others living shoulder-to-shoulder with some other entity that produces noise in substantial amounts. I personally find light rail to be relatively benign in terms of noise, but I know plenty of people who feel otherwise, especially those living close to a grade crossing. Should they be compensated? Should light rail lines be hemmed in with noise walls as some segments of interstate are walled off now? Who pays for that?

    And so on.

    My personal pet peeve is not the leaf blower, though I do find those unpleasant. In my case, it’s the unpredictable roar of an unmuffled Harley-Davidson. There’s no logic that can justify requiring mufflers on automobiles and trucks, and often lawn mowers and tractors, but simultaneously exempt the motorcycle engine, which is just as loud, and often louder, than other engines whose noise is regulated. This seems especially egregious when motorcycles that are often as fast, or faster, than a Harley (think: BMW, Honda, etc.) come equipped from the factory with very efficient mufflers that make them no louder than a conventional automobile, and just as fast as the unmuffled Harley next to them at the stoplight.

    • Submitted by John N. Finn on 11/03/2013 - 05:42 am.

      Can’t resist another rant

      “My personal pet peeve …… the unmuffled Harley…….. .”

      Should a representative of the Harley Davidson company chime in, it will be pointed out that their product leaves the factory in compliance with EPA regulations regarding noise. While the company and it’s dealers realize considerable extra profits from the sale of exhaust pipes and engine modifications that greatly amplify the sound, these are promoted and sold with the disclaimer (wink, wink) of being intended only for the race track.

      It’s ironic that H.D.’s early motorcycles were marketed with the nick-name “The Silent Grey Fellow”. Painted grey, obviously, and back then having a functional muffler was considered a desirable feature. Times change, of course. Now the ability of their customers to be effectively immune from federal, state, and local noise laws is key to their continued success.

      I live near a bridge spanning the Mississippi River that gets a lot of motorcycle traffic. The fairly steep approach, along with the streets in the vicinity, is a popular location for the bikers to show off how loud their machines can be. Unfortunately, our police department and city council have made it clear that despite signs at the edge of town about vehicle noise laws being enforced, they have no intention of ever actually doing that.

  4. Submitted by jason myron on 11/02/2013 - 10:34 pm.

    Mr. Watterson

    I live on five acres out in Anoka county….leaf blowers are a blight in rural areas as well. Grab a rake….the exercise will do you good rather than wasting gas and contributing noise pollution for hours at a time on beautiful weekend afternoons.

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