The Increase in Noise Pollution: What Are the Health Effects?

Article excerpt

Our World Is Growing Noisier

Air and water pollution are two major environmental problems, but so is noise pollution as our surroundings grow noisier. More people are complaining about the noise from automobile traffic, overhead airplanes and helicopters, leaf blowers, pneumatic drills, and neighbors who play their televisions and stereos much too loudly. Large urban areas and small towns alike are being inundated by unwanted sounds. These sounds or noises are disturbing, disrupting ongoing activities and peaceful interludes. One cannot concentrate on a work project if there is constant drilling at a nearby construction site. It is virtually impossible to enjoy a television program when overhead jets frequently drown out its sound. It is difficult to fall asleep if your upstairs neighbor's stereo system is blasting away.

Defining Noise

Noises are sounds that are not only unwanted but also unpredictable and uncontrollable. Airplanes are especially bothersome to residents who can never predict when the planes will be flying above and most certainly have no control over flight paths. The listener's attitude toward the source of the noise also contributes to the annoyance factor. Since airport managers are often insensitive to the plight of individuals who complain about the noise, residents see these employees as the enemy and, as a result, are more disturbed by the airplanes. It is bad enough that noise interferes with ongoing activities, but when people believe that nothing can be done to correct the noise problem, as is often the case with aircraft noise, they may adopt a feeling of helplessness that only serves to intensify the unhappiness and distress caused by the noise.

The Effects of Noise on the Body

Although the direct physical consequence of listening to loud sounds, especially over a period of time, can be hearing loss, sounds or, rather, noises at even lower volumes can have an indirect impact on our physiological and psychological systems. In other words, it is not only the ear that can be harmed by noise. Noise must be considered a hazard to our overall health and well-being.

How do people react physiologically to these unwanted sounds or noises? They react with a complex set of bodily responses known as stress, or arousal. Such changes may include an increase in blood pressure, a change in heart rate, a rise in blood cholesterol, or an excessive secretion of hormones. Should these stress reactions be sustained over time because the noises continue, they can cause actual damage to the circulatory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems or, for that matter, any other vulnerable bodily system.

There is growing evidence to support the relationship between noise and adverse health effects. Studies explaining nonauditory health impacts have generally looked at individuals living near airports, highways, and railroads. A review of community responses and attitudes toward noise demonstrates that large numbers of community residents living near these noisy airports and highways are disturbed by the noise. It would then follow that they would be stressed by the noises and, in turn, experience physiological problems. When the existing data are examined, it appears that the findings reporting cardiovascular problems are most consistent.

Contrary to the often-heard statement that people adapt to airplane noise, nearly 70 percent of the subjects in a soon-to-be-published study answered that they were bothered by the jet noise. These residents also stated that the noises interfered with activities such as talking, watching television, and opening a window for fresh air. They also perceived themselves to be in poorer health. Their responses were compared with another group living in a non-flight area, and both groups were unaware of the researchers' interest in the effects of noise on health.

Noise has also been found to affect the physical health of children. …