by Susan Perry

Health and Wellness Magazine

March 1, 2003

Even low-level noise can be harmful to your health

It’s a loud, loud, loud, loud, world.

Whether we live in the city or in suburbia — or even, increasingly, in rural areas — we’re bombarded with a cacophony of background noise: automobile traffic, airplanes and helicopters, construction equipment, leafblowers, boom boxes, car alarms, air conditioners, restaurant and store music, one-sided cell phone conversations and more. It’s enough to make you want to scream.

We’ve long known that loud noise — sounds above 85 decibels (dBA) — can harm our hearing. But a growing number of studies are also showing that persistent low-intensity noise, well below ear-splitting level, can be detrimental to other aspects of our health. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared noise a significant health threat.

“Noise causes stress, and like any stressor, it affects us physiologically,” explains Arline Bronzaft, Ph. D., a psychologist and volunteer member of the New York City Council on the Environment. “Our hearts beat faster. Our pulse rates increase. Our stomachs churn. Digestion is impaired. If the noise — and the stress — continues, then it can lead to physiological breakdown.”

Blood pressure shoots up, for example, and stayes elevated, even when you’re away from the noise. And the higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk of developing heart disease.

“Animals that are chronically exposed to noise have trouble with their immune systems,” adds Gary Evans, Ph. D., an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “The connection has not been shown in humans, but it’s consistent with this notion of stress.”

Chronic low-level noise can also disturb sleep. “That’s a critical area,” says Bronzaft. “A good night’s sleep is necessary to maintain good health.”

At the Office

One area of our lives where low-level noise has become an increasing problem is at the office. An estimated 25 million Americans now work in “open-style” offices, where there’s a steady hum of ringing telephones, conversing coworkers, whirring office equipment and other sounds. A recent study by Evans has shown that not only does this low-intensity noise elevate workers’ stress hormones and blood pressure, but it can also lead to back, neck and other musculoskeletal problems. This is primarily because workers in such environments are much less likely to adjust their chairs, footrests, whiteboards and document holders than workers in quiet offices.

“We don’t know exactly why this is so,” notes Evans. The reason may be linked, he says, to the fact that when we’re under stress, we tend to focus more intensely on our main task or activity. As a result, we may not be aware as we should be of the need to change our posture or take a break.

Low-level noise can affect your work performance. Evans found that workers in noisy offices were 40 percent less likely to continue to work on a complex task than those in quiet workspaces. “Open offices can be great for some tasks — for doing team projects, for example,” Evans says. “But if you have to sit and write, forget it.” For more complex tasks that require concentration, workers need a private room, Evans says, “where they can go in, close the door and have traditional quiet space to work in.”

Interestingly, the workers in Evans’ study didn’t realize that noise was causing stress to their bodies or interfering with their ability to get their jobs done. “It didn’t really bother them too much because it was what they were used to,” says Evans.

Other research has also shown that over time, low-level noise can lose its annoyance factor, enabling you to almost forget that it’s there — at least, consciously. Unconsciously, however, your body will continue to interpret the noise as stress.

“You can get used to it,” says Evans, “but there’s no free lunch.”

Dining Out

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say there’s no noise-free lunch. In recent years, it’s become trendy for architects to give restaurants a “high-tech” look, with bare floors and ceilings that reflect rather than absorb sounds. Add loud background music, and an eating experience can quickly turn into a shouting match. Studies have shown that many restaurants routinely exceed 85 decibels — the danger level for hearing loss. Many others operate at lower, but still conversation impeding, levels.

“You would think that the restaurants were trying to drive customers away or make it impossible for people to talk,” says Ted Rueter, a political science professor at Tulane University and founder of the nonprofit group Noise Free America.

Indeed, noise is second only to poor service as the most common complaint among restaurant-goers, which is why some restaurant critics have begun carrying noise meters to rate the din as well as the dinners in the places they review.

The stress caused by noise certainly doesn’t help digestion. Researchers have found that noise can trigger changes in the gastrointestinal system that interfere with digestion. No wonder, then, that people living in noisy communities tend to use more antacids.

In the backyard

Restaurant noise can be avoided, of course, by eating elsewhere. Other background noise is less easy to dodge. If you live in a neighborhood with lawns and driveways, you most likely can’t avoid the steady weekend hum (depending on the season) of lawnmowers, leafblowers and snowblowers.

Leafblowers, which can run as loud as 110 dBA, especially raise the ire of anti-noise activists like Rueter. “Many communities have banned them,” he says, “but I don’t know if we can claim much progress. They seem to be ingrained in American life.”

Like the other loud, motor-driven machines we use around our houses, leafblowers, say the experts, can harm our health in two ways: They produce noise that raises our blood pressure and they make us more sedentary, which also leads to higher blood pressure.

“Instead of using rakes and brooms, we use leafblowers because they’re quicker and you don’t have to break a sweat,” explains Rueter. “They’re really indicative of the declining health and activity levels of Americans.”

Fighting Back

Finding quiet anywhere can be a challenge, especially with the proliferation of new technological tools and toys. With booming car stereos, car alarms, personal watercraft like Jet Skis, snowmobiles and cell phones, even the most remote vacation cabin can turn into an anything-but-peaceful retreat.

Individuals and communities are fighting back against this growing noise pollution — quietly, of course. Dozens of anti-noise organizations have formed around the world with the dual purpose of raising public awareness about noise and strengthening noise-related laws and regulations. Governments are listening. Just last fall, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the launch of Operation Silent Night, a citywide quality-of-life initiative aimed at combating loud and excessive noise in New York City.

“About 85 percent of complaints to the New York City police’s quality-of-life hotline involve noise,” says Bronzaft, who has advised Bloomberg and previous New York City mayors on noise issues. “The mayor said, ‘Hey, this is the number one issue here. Let’s attend to it'”

Bronzaft thinks that if New York, the city that has turned car honking and talking loudly into art forms, can get a handle its noise problem, other communities can, too. “We have lots of problems when it comes to noise, but people in New York are very reasonable,” she says. “We’re not asking for a quiet, sleepy town. We have the most vibrant, exciting town anywhere. We have the Macy’s parade. We have the ball falling down on New Year’s Eve. But when people come home in the evening, they want to rest a bit.”

Quiet is essential to living a good life, Bronzaft adds. “It’s good for your physical, your mental and your spiritual health,” she says. “Quiet also gives you a time to get in touch with who you are and your values. You can’t begin to think about those things in a noisy environment.”

Technology has caused much of the noise problem — and it can solve it, too, say the experts, by coming up with quieter ways for us to go about our daily lives. “Let’s use our technology to quiet things down a bit,” says Bronzaft. “But we also need to become more civil as a people. If we put civil back into civilized, there would be a lot fewer people bothered by noise.”

Susan Perry is a freelance health and science writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her latest book is Taking Charge of High Blood Pressure: Start Today’s Strategies for Combatting the Silent Killer (Reader’s Digest).