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Quiet Please – The Noise-Health Connection

Shannon Harvey

As I write these words I’m sitting in my sunlit kitchen with a freshly brewed cup of warm tea, my seven-week-old son is sleeping in his bassinet… and my next door neighbor is intermittently blasting a low pitched rumble and a high pitched buzz with some kind of mechanized contraption used for cutting timber.  

My neighbor is an owner-builder, which in Australia means he has a special license that allows him to carry out his own construction work. He’s been building his house for the last three and a half years – a time frame I’m all-too aware of because he started building in the same week that I brought my first son home from the hospital.  

Over the years I have developed various coping strategies – I’m the proud (and possessive) owner of noise cancelling headphones, I often escape to one of my favorite cafés when I’m trying to work from home, and I use a white noise sound track in the nursery. But it was while I was researching the chapter in my forthcoming book about how the environment around us impacts our health, that I learned that my noisy neighbor may be causing more than just annoyance. It turns out, loud noise can be bad for our health.  

Hearing loss is the most obvious of the noise induced health complications. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of the US population is exposed to noise levels deemed harmful to hearing and that 104 million people are at risk of hearing loss because of excessive noise. The World Health Organization recently warned that 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults around the world are at risk of hearing loss from their personal audio devices.  

But what interests me is that our noisy world isn’t just damaging our ears. Researchers are increasingly connecting the rising din of the modern world with poor health.  

Our physiology hasn’t caught up with the fact that times have changed since the days when pre-historic humans were roaming the African savannah and a loud noise signaled a potential threat, so it’s little wonder that noise activates our fight or flight stress response. Although the rumble of traffic, the roar of an overhead aircraft, the pulsing beat of the party next door, or the surround sound drama of your favorite action movie don’t actually threaten your life, your body doesn’t know it. Even the constant barrage of dings and pings from your smart devices can put you on high alert. Noise can increase your blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones, which is why researchers believe excessive noise is associated with an increased incidence of hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke.  

Next door, the rumbling buzzing contraption has now been replaced with sporadic bashing and thumping from hammer blows to an unrepentant piece of timber. Upstairs, my newborn son is understandably having a hard time with his afternoon nap. He’s not alone in being sleep deprived because of noise. Even if you’re not aware of it, noise from things like traffic or overhead aircraft might mean you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough quality, deep sleep. In fact, sleep disturbance is considered the most concerning effect of noise next to hearing loss, with a clear link between poor sleep and poor health (which I’ve written about previously). Thankfully, my noisy neighbor isn’t allowed to build his house at night, though he has been known to start up before 7am on a Saturday morning. Grrrr.  

The cacophony next door has meant that this blog post has taken me longer than usual to write. Like for millions of other people around the world, excessive noise can cause difficulty in concentrating. Arline Bronzaft is an environmental psychologist and leading expert on the impact noise has on your concentration and performance. In 1981 she conducted a study at a public school in Manhattan’s Washington Heights in which some of the classrooms faced directly out to an elevated subway track. With trains rattling by every four and a half minutes, the teacher was forced to regularly pause until they passed. When Bronzaft compared the performance of the kids in the noisy classroom to their peers on the opposite, quiet side of the building she found that the kids who were constantly interrupted were nearly one year behind in their reading skills. Fortunately the school took steps to dampen the sound and reading levels had equalized after a year.  

In an ever-urbanizing, increasingly mechanized world, noise pollution is more severe and widespread than ever before and medical professionals are concerned. “In the 21st Century we are experiencing the man-made plague of environmental noise from which there is virtually no escape, no matter where we are – in our homes and yards, on our streets, in our cars, at theaters, restaurants, parks, arenas, and in other public places,” write Lisa Goines and Louis Hagler, MD in their piece called Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague published in the Southern Medical Journal.  

Fortunately, there are things you can do if you’re being affected by noise. Ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones, wall insulation and thick window glass can all make a difference in dampening sound. My husband and I have come to the realization that our neighbor is unlikely to ever finish building his house. (He has moved the location of his sandstone steps three times, apparently having not got it right the first or second time). We are also conscious of the fact that the most widespread and well documented subjective response to noise is annoyance, so we’re working hard on practicing equanimity in the interest of neighborly peace. We are also optimists. Instead of starting World War III in our street by making endless noise complaints, we simply buy the occasional lottery ticket and dream of moving away to a mansion with water front views where our biggest noise complaint is the sound of the rolling ocean.

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