Noise is probably the most frequently forgotten of the environmental pollutants, yet its effects can be many and far-reaching. Millions of people on all continents are exposed to unhealthy levels of noise. Perhaps 150 million US citizens live in areas where the daily average noise levels exceed the US Environmental Protection Agency's safe noise level of an average of 55 decibels. What is a truly safe level of noise is controversial; levels of between 55 and 65 dB have been used for planning purposes in the USA and have been called "acceptable". In Hong Kong over a million people live in even noisier environments.
Sources of Noise Pollution
The sources of noise pollution vary. In some places noise from construction projects predominates, while in others it is vehicular traffic or noise from airports. Other sources include the noise in occupational settings or even the noise of simultaneous conversations. It also seems from a number of studies that intermittent noise is more of a problem than noise of a similar intensity which is constant.
Effects of Noise Pollution
Noise pollution affects nearly every aspect of life and probably has damaging physical effects as well. The best-studied and best-defined effect on physical health is the effect of noise on hearing. The research results are clear: loud or sustained noise can damage hearing. The source of the noise is not very important; it can be a pile driver or rock music. What is important is that it can have a lasting impact.
Noise pollution also impacts people's sleep. It can result in mood problems and adversely affect job performance. (See our section on insomnia for more information on the effects of disturbed sleep and steps to take to improve insomnia.)
Several research studies suggest that noise can cause high blood pressure. Others say that psychiatric diseases can be caused by noise. Some of these studies are controversial and are contested by other researchers because so many variables such as age, overall state of health, diet, smoking and drinking habits, socioeconomic factors, and other sources of environmental and social stress must also be taken into account.
It is clear, however, that noise, even though a "non-specific stressor", does cause a physical response. It elicits the same responses as a perceived physical threat would produce: it activates the nervous system, causes the muscles to tense and the heart rate and respiratory rate to increase and prepares the body to fight or to run away. This response-called the "fight or flight" response--underlies all responses to stress.
The long-term effects of this kind of stimulus, of being ready to flee or give battle, are not completely understood. Being continuously under stress is something like sitting on the edge of your chair or waiting for the other shoe to drop. Your body isn't quite sure what will happen next or how to respond, and that state constant confusion has been implicated in the development of a number of diseases.
It is also important to remember that people who sense that they have some control over what happens in their lives are impacted less strongly by stressors than those who feel they have no control, and noise is something over which we have very little control. (See our section on stress for more information about these important problems.)
Noise affects us in another significant way: people exposed to noise feel a greater sense of frustration and annoyance than people whose environment is not as noisy. Annoyance is the expression of the negative feelings experienced when one's activities or the enjoyment of one's surroundings are disrupted. Annoyance can have a major impact on the quality of life and is generally a variable examined when studying the impact of noise.
In addition to the other environmental pollutants, noise can affect not only our moods but also our physical well being, and, just like water and air pollution, must be subject to greater study and more stringent controls.
How to lower the pollution
There are some things you can do to help yourself while governments get around to tightening the standards for noise pollution, though:
--You can use air conditioning to allow you to keep windows closed during the noisiest times of the day. This is of course only an interim solution, since air conditioning uses more electricity which raises your energy costs and also requires more power plants which in turn create more air or other forms of pollution. Furthermore, when rooms are closed up indoor air pollution becomes a problem. But it can be a good short-term solution.
--You can buy small noise-canceling devices which sample the frequencies of sound and create other sound waves which in essence collide with the noxious sounds and batter them into other, less disturbing sounds. These devices are relatively new and have not been proven to be fully effective, though.
--You can use other sound-generating devices such as stereo systems, which cover up some of the more disturbing sounds with more pleasurable ones. This a short-term solution, however, since the underlying sounds are still present.
--You can learn some of the techniques described in our section on Stress to lessen the impact unpleasant sounds may have on you. When you are more relaxed in general, big annoyances become little annoyances and may disappear altogether. When you learn to truly relax, you may find that sounds which were once of great concern simply fade away into the background.
--And of course, if none of the other suggestions works, you can become active in your community to work with your local authorities to devise solutions to the problem of noise pollution which may be uniquely suited to you and to the place you live, making life wherever you may be better for everyone.