Noise and Health

Noise does a body bad. Excessive noise has been linked to hearing loss, tinnitus, sleep deprivation, cardiovascular disturbances, mental health impairment, impaired task performance, aggressive behavior, and chronic fatigue. Noise levels throughout the world are growing at alarming levels.

Noise is unwanted sound. K.D. Kryter, in Handbook of Hearing and the Effects of Noise, defined noise as “acoustic signal which can negatively affect the physiological or psychological well-being of an individual.”

Noise levels greater than 80 decibels are considered potentially hazardous. Increasingly, everyday sounds approach or exceed this level. For example, a vacuum cleaner is around 70 decibels. An alarm clock can emit 80 decibels. Lawnmowers, shop tools, truck traffic, and subways approach 90 decibels. Snowmobiles and chain saws are around 100 decibels, and model airplanes can exceed 110 decibels. Physically painful noise includes car stereos at 140 decibels, a jackhammer at 130, jet engines at 140, and the peak of a rock concert at 150. Other sources of noise between 90 and 140 decibels include motorcycles, firearms, firecrackers, headset listening systems, tractors, garbage disposals, blenders, and noisy toys.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans are exposed to harmful levels of noise in their jobs every day—especially firefighters, disc jockeys, subway workers, construction workers, musicians, landscapers, and factory workers The Environmental Protection Agency concludes that more than 130 million Americans live in areas with dangerously high levels of noise.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 26 million Americans “have high frequency hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud sounds or noise at or in leisure activities. Recreational activities that can put someone at risk for noise-induced hearing loss include target shooting and hunting, snowmobile riding, woodworking and other hobbies, playing in a band, and attending rock concerts. Harmful noises at home may come from lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and shop tools.” Continued exposure to noise of greater than 85 decibels may cause gradual but permanent damage to hearing.

Excessive noise can also cause tinnitus—a ringing in the ears that may sound like whining, buzzing, humming, or whistling. Some tinnitus victims have been led to suicide because of the extreme, constant irritation.

Noise is also a major cause of sleep deprivation—which can result in obesity, depression, diabetes, lowered intellectual achievement, and cardiovascular disease. Every person’s productivity, performance, and emotional well-being is linked with getting good sleep. Street traffic, airplanes, barking dogs, construction noise, loud parties, neighbors’ televisions, trains, and trucks can all cause noise-related sleep deprivation.

In addition, a growing body of evidence confirms that noise pollution has both temporary and permanent effects on the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems. According to RN Lisa Goines and Dr. Louis Hagler, “It has been postulated that noise acts as a non-specific biologic stressor eliciting reactions that prepare the body for a fight or flight response. For this reason, noise can trigger both endocrine and autonomic system responses that affect the cardiovascular system and thus may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. These effects begin to be seen with long-term daily exposure to noise levels above 65 decibels or with acute exposure to noise levels above 80 to 85 decibels.”

While noise is not a major cause of mental illness, it does appear to accelerate and worsen its development. Goines and Hagler state that noise pollution may cause or contribute to “anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headache, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, change in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis, hysteria, and psychosis.”

Noise pollution has a clear effect on cognitive task performance. Noise pollution decreases motivation, increases errors, and impairs performance at work and school. Noise strongly affects memory, problem-solving, and reading attention. Cognitive and language development, as well as reading achievement, are lessened in noisy homes. Students experience lessened achievement when their homes or schools are located near highways and airports. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health reports that noise affects reading, learning, problem solving, motivation, social and emotional development, and school performance.

One study compared the effect of noise upon the test results of students in the same school. Half the students were in classrooms abutting a railroad track; the other half were not. Students in the quiet classrooms performed much better. Another study showed that students who were in classrooms away from noisy streets performed better than students in classrooms facing noisy streets.

Noise levels above 80 decibels are associated with an increase in aggressive behavior. Numerous scientific studies indicate that noise may trigger unfriendliness, social disengagement, anger, dissatisfaction, disappointment, depression, anxiety, distraction, and agitation. Noise can lead to a sense of helplessness. Noise-related agitation has been the major cause of shootings, stabbings, and murder.

Noise is also a major cause of chronic fatigue—a debilitating condition that may include digestive problems, sight disturbances, physical weakness, a compromised immune system, viral infections, swollen lymph nodes, loss of memory, and muscle and joint pains. In short, noise make a person tired.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, noise has many other physical effects, including increased blood pressure, heightened breathing rate, ulcers, and fetal development disruption. Noise can also “intensify the effects of factors like drugs, alcohol, aging, and carbon monoxide.”

To protect yourself from the harms of noise, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends:

  • Wear ear protectors (such as custom-made ear plugs)
  • Limit periods of exposure to noise (“Don’t sit next to the speakers at concerts, discos, or auditoriums.”)
  • Pump down the volume! (“When using stereo headsets or listening to amplified music in a confined place like a car, turn down the volume.”)
  • Educate yourself about the damaging effects of noise.
  • Educate others and take action!
  • Be a responsible consumer (“Look for a noise rating when buying recreational equipment, children’s toys, household appliances, and power tools.”)
  • Inspect your child’s toys for noise danger.
  • Have your hearing tested by an audiologist.
  • Be aware of the noise in your environment and take control of it.
  • Be an advocate!