Noise pollution: how does it affect our health?
Noise is part of our lives. It is practically impossible to escape it, to the point that noise pollution has become a public health issue. Environmental noises can have a long-term negative impact on our hearing health and on our health in general.
The pollution aspect is not necessarily related to how loud a noise is. Noise pollution can come from a low or repetitive noise at nighttime or in a silent environment. An annoying, relatively quiet noise can be just as unpleasant as the sound of a truck on a highway. Once a noise becomes bothersome or annoying, or disrupts our usual well-being, it can be considered noise pollution.
How does environmental noise affect health?
Hearing: Work or environmental noises can be extremely loud and account for many cases of hearing loss. There are also factors such as chemical exposure and normal aging of the ear that affect hearing.
Sleep: The noise around us has direct consequences on sleep and indirect consequences after we awaken. Uninterrupted sleep is crucial for optimal physical and mental function. For a good night’s sleep, the noise level should not be higher than 30 to 45 dBA.
Intellectual performance: Environmental noises can affect learning, in class and at work. It can have an impact on reading, attention, problem solving and memorization, for example.
Children who are constantly surrounded by airport noise perform worse on tests and are less motivated.
How do we measure noise pollution?
There are several instruments that measure environmental noise. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the main three are the noise dosimeter, the integrating sound level meter and the sound level meter.
Noise dosimeter: This is a small device that attaches to a person’s belt. Its microphone is fastened near the ear and records the sounds in the environment. The noise dosimeter calculates the average of all the sounds present and is useful when noises vary in duration and intensity, and when the person moves around.
Integrating sound level meter: Like the noise dosimeter, the integrating sound level meter calculates the average of all sounds, whether variable or not, during a particular period of time. This is a handheld device, so its sound perception is more general.
Sound level meter: The sound level meter measures the acoustic pressure at a particular time in a particular space. It takes an instantaneous measurement, so is only useful when the noise is uniform and constant.
There are also several smartphone applications that read noise levels, including:
Besides measuring environmental noise levels, these detectors identify the sources of harmful noise and notify the user, as well as all the other people using the application.
What can we do to reduce environmental noise?
There are measures we can take when ambient noise cannot be avoided or reduced. The following are a few examples:
- Use environmentally friendly transportation;
- Drive slower in urban areas where traffic volume is high. Reducing speed from 70 to 50 km/h lowers noise levels by 2 to 3 dB;
- Create calm green spaces. Natural sounds, like running water or wind in the trees, help mask urban noise pollution;
- Build sound abatement walls (e.g. along highways) or use noise barriers to control ambient sounds;
- Wear noise-reducing hearing protection. Whether traditional (shells and earplugs) or custom-made, hearing protectors block noise by creating a barrier. The degree of noise reduction varies depending on the type of protection.
We are often the cause of noise in our environment. So whenever possible, avoid making loud noises or keep it down when you can, either by using public transit to keep the number of cars on the road to a minimum, or by using better-performing machines and tools that make less noise.