You hear a lot about the health dangers of air pollution, but there’s another type of pollution (a type you may not even realize is pollution) that can cause a host of health problems: noise pollution. The World Health Organization says noise pollution—formally defined as “unwanted and/or harmful sounds”—is the second-largest environmental cause of health problems, right after air pollution. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says noise pollution can have “countless health effects.” (Unfortunately, the EPA closed its Office of Noise Abatement and Control after it was defunded during the Reagan administration, leaving the U.S. population to fend for itself against the adverse effects of noise.)
The damage noise can do
The most common health problem created by loud noise—a one-time exposure like a gunshot or long-term exposure like working in a noisy factory—is noise-induced hearing loss, which affects 28 percent of American adults. Tinnitus—ringing in the ears—is also caused by both acute and chronic loud noise. But there are many other noise-related health problems—including the biggest killer of all, cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD). Long-term exposure to environmental noise is bad for your circulatory system and heart. It raises blood pressure, heart rate, blood fats, blood sugar, and increases the thickness of the blood—increasing your risk for atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke. Every increase of 10 decibels increases the risk of CVD by 7 to 17 percent, according to a study in The Lancet on the effects of noise on health. (A decibel is a measurement of sound—a car in city traffic generates about 70 decibels, while a truck generates 80, a hairdryer 90, and a helicopter 100.)
Disturbed sleep. Noise disturbs sleep in every way possible, making it harder to fall asleep, waking you up early in the morning, reducing deep sleep (slow-wave sleep) and dream sleep (rapid eye movement sleep), and generally increasing the time you are awake or in more superficial sleep stages. Deep, restful sleep is a must for health, with disturbed sleep linked to heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression—not to mention daytime fatigue, poor productivity, accidents and injuries, and lower quality of life. The people most at risk for disturbed sleep from noise are seniors, children, shift-workers, and people with a sleep disorder like sleep apnea.
Cognitive decline in adults. A study from Germany involving more than 4,000 people showed that elevated levels of traffic noise were linked to lower cognitive scores. In a five-year study that was part of the Chicago Health and Aging Project, every 10-decibel increase in noise exposure increased the risk of cognitive impairment, up to 36 percent.
It affects kids, too. More than 20 studies show that children’s ability to learn is harmed by noise because of communication difficulties, impaired attention, frustration, annoyance, and sleep disturbance. For example, a study showed that a 5-decibel increase in noise delayed reading age in children by two months.
Stress. Loud noise causes stress, which lowers quality of life and can cause or complicate nearly every health condition and disease. Noises as low as 60 decibels can cause stress if they’re unwanted and intrusive.
There are several ways you can reduce noise in your environment and protect your health.
Protect your ears. If you’re exposed to loud noise—like when using a leaf blower, traveling by airplane, or attending a loud concert—always wear noise-reducing earmuffs. Earmuffs and earplugs are even better. Also consider using earplugs at night if noise is disturbing your sleep.
Use a decibel app to test your environment, and leave if it’s too noisy. An app like SoundPrint measures the decibels in your immediate environment so you can leave if the level of noise is damaging to health. It also provides a database of quiet restaurants and other quiet public venues based on other users’ decibel measurements.
Buy quieter equipment. Before buying a piece of conventionally noisy household equipment—for example, lawn and garden equipment, or appliances like dishwashers and blenders—check out which brands are quietest.
Don’t be a noisy neighbor. It’s important to respect your neighbor’s need for quiet, so do your best to maintain a quiet environment in your home or apartment. Follow this variation of the golden rule: Do unto your neighbor’s ears as you would have them do unto your ears.
Be an activist for a noise-free world. Many organizations are enlisting people in the fight against unwanted noise, and you can join. They include Quiet Communities (https://quietcommunities.org), Quiet Parks International (www.quietparks.org), and Right to Quiet (www.quiet.org).
Home, quiet home
There are many things you can do to reduce noise levels in your own home, according to Steve Hass, CEO and principal consultant for SH Acoustics, in Stamford, Conn., a firm that designs residential (and commercial) spaces that have quiet and controlled acoustics, to achieve what he calls “residential acoustical wellness.”
First, understand your problem. There are many factors that can affect the overall quality of sound in a home, including the size of the room, the furnishings, the adjacency to other rooms, the walls and windows, the noise-generating systems of the home, like plumbing, and heating and air conditioning, and exterior noises like vehicles, aircraft, and emergency sirens. There is also the fact that most homes are not designed and built to account for the control and quality of sound. Short of major renovations on your home by a designer and builder, here are some practical solutions to your sound problems and to achieving quieter and controlled acoustics:
Use carpets or area rugs with pads underneath them. This gets rid of quite a bit of “footfall” noise, which can be very annoying in the room below the footfalls if you’re trying to relax or sleep.
Insulate walls and ceilings. Add another layer of sheet rock or drywall to each side of a wall or on a ceiling to reduce sounds from an adjoining room. Also add thermal insulation, when possible.
Consider acoustical panels. These sound-absorbing panels can help reduce the noise in an echoey or reverberant room so you can hear a conversation during a party with a dozen friends. Make sure the panels are thick enough to make a difference (at least 1 inch) and that they blend in with the room rather than making it look like a sound studio.
Close the gaps. Gaps or openings in a wall, like at the baseboard or where a pipe penetrates, allows sound to travel. Use caulk or other materials to seal them. An often overlooked gap is the areas around electrical boxes, outlets, and light switches.
Pay attention to doors. They are the weak link in containing sound because they’re of a much lighter weight than walls. To seal a door, use a professional-level gasket around all four sides of the door, not just at the bottom.
And windows, too. Upgrading your windows is not inexpensive, but it can make a big difference in keeping out sound. Short of new windows, consider interior storm sashes, which fit on the inside of typical double-hung residential windows and make a noticeable difference in reducing sound.
Watch out for misinformation. There is a lot of misinformation online when it comes to reducing sound in your home. Watch out for hyperbole. If a manufacturer claims their product will “solve all noise problems,” or that a thin layer will “block all sound,” stay away.
Now Don’t Hear This
There are many ways to protect your ears from loud and damaging noise, says Amy Sarow, AuD, the lead audiologist at Soundly (www.soundly.com), a hearing-health education site.
- Noise-canceling headphones. These help keep volume in a safer range because you don’t have to increase the volume over the sound of the background noise. Two good products: Air Pods Pro 2 and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds.
- White noise. White noise masks noise in the environment because it contains equal energy from all frequencies, high (bird song, sirens) or low (thunder, bass). Turn the volume up just to the level necessary to mask the bothersome sound. Good products: the LectroFan EVO and Hatch Restore.
- Earplugs. There are many types. Look for a variety that fits you ear canal and effectively reduces noise. Silicone putty earplugs are a good option, particularly for hard-to-fit ear canals or people with sensitive ears. Two good products: Mack’s and Eargasm Squishies. Also recommended: Loop earplugs are stylish, which encourages people to wear them. The Etymotic Research ER20XS is a high-fidelity earplug with a three-flange design that fits most ear canals.
- Use headphones safely. Keeping volume at 60 to 70 percent is generally a safe listening level. A good rule of thumb: You should be able to hear a person speaking at an arm’s length while listening with your headphones. If you can’t, the volume is too loud.