Should I worry about noise pollution?
More traffic, more construction, more drum‘n’bass-loving neighbours – society’s volume is going up. What are the impacts on our health and is there a solution?
The world is getting louder. Population growth means more traffic and construction; the onward march of technology means more bells, whistles and the rattle and hum of the server farms that keep it all running. In an environment where 46% of people say they’ll happily watch videos without headphones in a public place, even nature is struggling to keep up: city birds often sing louder, longer, or at a higher pitch than their country cousins. “The day will come,” Nobel prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch reportedly once said, “when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague”. That day might be here: the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that at least one in five Europeans are now exposed to noise levels considered harmful to their health, with that number projected to increase.
So what’s the actual issue with society’s volume going up? The perils of pneumatic drills and emergency service sirens are obvious: both operate close to the 120 decibel level that can damage hearing over very short exposures. What’s more insidious is the background noise that many of us have to learn to live with: roads, railways and even loud stereos, all of which can cause problems over time. “The EEA recently estimated that in the UK, 9.5 million people are exposed to harmful levels of road noise, 1.2 million to harmful railway noise and 1 million people to harmful aircraft noise,” says Charlotte Clark, professor of environmental epidemiology at St George’s, University of London. “In the UK, these levels are estimated to cause more than 6,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease, 1,000 premature deaths and 750,000 cases of sleep disturbance each year. These are likely to be underestimates.”
Part of the problem is simply how stressful it is to live with a constant din, even if it’s relatively low-level. We’re often powerless in the face of noise, whether it’s a drum‘n’bass-loving neighbour, someone watching TikTok on the bus, or leaf blowers in the street outside – and that can come with a cascade of effects. “Living with noise day to day is annoying, and annoyance is a stress response,” says Prof Clark. “If experienced over time, the stress hormones released affect mood and can cause a range of biological changes to the body that influence cardiovascular health. Over the long term, chronic noise exposure is also associated with increased risk for hypertension, strokes, and dementia. It’s estimated that aircraft, road and railway traffic noise is associated with a 2-3% increase in depression risk per 10 decibel increase.” Decibels are measured logarithmically, so if something increases in volume by 10dB, it’s effectively about twice as loud.
Even when we’re asleep, noise can affect us. Obviously, it affects our ability to drop off, but it can also fragment sleep, nudging us away from restorative REM slumber and towards more time spent in superficial sleep stages. “When you sleep, your ears are on all the time,” says Prof Clark. “Noise increases your heart rate and contributes to other issues – which, if it happens over a sustained period of time, triggers the same cardiovascular risks I spoke about earlier.”
So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, there’s no single easy answer, and it’s often very difficult for individuals to reduce their noise exposure. Turning off devices at night is the most basic way to reduce unnecessary sleep interruptions; earplugs can also help, with many NHS audiology departments offering options moulded to your ears. Noise-cancelling headphones can be helpful in public – if you’re concerned about the decibel level of your music, there are apps available to check it.
On a larger level, though, noisiness is a choice we make as a society: it’s about flight paths, and traffic levels, and how much we lubricate our heavy machinery. In some areas, more foliage may be a solution: “noise buffers” composed of trees and shrubs can reduce noise by 5-10dB for every 30m width of woodland. In others, solutions could include more rigidly enforced speed limits, reassessing what noise levels workers should be exposed to, or introducing directional sirens. Noise pollution, it’s probably fair to say, is more of a problem than most of us are ready to accept. Maybe it’s time to start shouting about it.