Environmental noise is considered another term for “noise pollution”. Simply put, it is the unwanted and excessive increase in sound caused by human activities. Environmental noise is increasingly considered a risk factor in negative health outcomes in issues such as sleep disturbances, hearing loss, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.
‘Pyramid of the Health Effects of Noise’ (World Health Organization).
Federal Government Policies on Noise Levels
In general, regulations to address environmental noise are fragmented across both federal and state laws. Greater collaboration between legislative bodies may lessen the negative impact of environmental noise thereby improving public health outcomes. Some scientists call for a revision of the policy statement on environmental noise by The American Public Health Association. In addition, some advocates want greater federal actions in noise research, monitoring, and education to assist state and local governments develop regulations designed to decrease noise pollution.
The American Public Health Association has been a long-term supporter of additional research, edification, and regulations to address environmental noise pollution. The body of knowledge surrounding the negative impact that environmental noise has on health has grown in recent decades. As the understanding has expanded, the gap between the research community and elected officials has grown regarding noise pollution. Advocates have been calling for better awareness.
Causes of Environmental Noise
Most people can identify traffic noise as a major source of environmental noise pollution. However, most do not have an understanding of how this affects their health. Nor do they have a clear appreciation for the actions they can take to protect their health against those negative effects.
At the research level, the comprehension of problems caused by environmental noise has grown exponentially. The federal government establishes levels for acceptable environmental noise over 25 years ago. Now, government agencies such as the EPA can propose new levels that address the additional environmental noise that comes from so many other sources. These include mass transit, lawn care equipment, airplanes, construction, highways, urban congestion, industrial activities, power generation, home power tools, recreational vehicles, HVAC equipment, and more.
Environmental noise is now highly monitored and regulated, especially in commercial settings.
In order to calculate the impact on health, monitors must take into account the volume in decibels and how far away the affected population is from the noise. They must also measure the length in time that the sound occurs and the time of day. Due to the numerous factors, accurately measuring the impact of environmental noise can be complicated. Frequently, scientists may begin with the outcome and work backwards.
Chronic Environmental Noise Pollution and Health Conditions
Chronic environmental noise pollution causes an array of negative health outcomes such as hearing loss, annoyance, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Each of these has been shown to have an adverse effect on neurological/psychiatric conditions, cardiovascular problems, and problems resulting from hearing loss.
Studies have shown that higher levels of environmental noise in the home and at work can result in higher blood pressure, more cases of heart disease, increase distractibility and irritation in adults, higher levels of diabetes, and an increase in hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children.
The current research also shows a relationship between chronic exposure to high levels of noise pollution and mortality rates. This comes from repetitive sleep disturbances, stress, anxiety, and irritation. Mortality rates are also positively impacted by the outcomes of hearing loss. In addition, sleep disturbances can lead to more accidents and learning difficulties across all ages. Higher levels of irritation due to noise pollutions can lead to cognitive problems, such as an inability to concentrate, and higher stress levels.
An increasing number of studies show that feelings of powerlessness and stress from high levels of environmental noise can result in higher strain on the endocrine and cardiovascular systems. This can produce a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
Irritation resulting from high levels of noise pollution can be an aggravating factor that makes the noise seem worse than it is. This exacerbates negative health outcomes. One recent study shows that mitigating noise pollution can actually contribute to saving lives by reducing the incidents of heart disease. Reducing environmental noise can also lead to lower incidents of hearing loss, thereby improving a person’s ability to communicate as well as gather and interpret information from around them.
The extent to which environmental noise contributes to negative health outcomes is becoming increasingly clear. It is well documented, and addressing ways to mitigate the risks can produce positive effects.
Select research and further reading:
Freedman, N.S., Ganzendam, J., Levan, L., Pack, A.I., & Schwab, R.J. (1999). Abnormal Sleep/Wake Cycles and the Effect of Environmental Noise on Sleep Disruption in the Intensive Care Unit. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 163(2)
Hänninen, O., Knol, A.B., Jantunen, M., Lim, T.A., Conrad, A., Rappolder, M., Carrer, P., Fanetti, A.C., Kim R., Buekers, J., Torfs, R., Iavarone, I., Classen, T., Hornberg, C., Mekel, & O.C., EBoDE Working Group. (2014). Environmental Burden of Disease in Europe: Assessing Nine Risk Factors in Six Countries. Environ Health Perspect 122. 439–446