Lawnmowers, jackhammers, trucks, trains, buses, and more. The modern world is full of unwanted sounds—many of which we have learned to ignore. Everywhere we go, we encounter sounds that can reach dangerous levels. At home, it may be nearly as bad. Vacuum cleaners, televisions, laundry machines, furnaces, and the noise generated by the people we live with can all classify as noise pollution.
Noise Pollution: A Cause for Concern
We can live with a certain amount of noise pollution, but a constant thrum of activity—especially at higher volume levels—will take its toll not only on our ears but on our physical and mental health, as well. Audiologists often refer to noise pollution as the “modern unseen plague,” as it causes damage of which we’re usually unaware.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that noise pollution is excessive noise that “seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time.” Environmental noise is a growing problem, especially as more areas of the globe are industrialized on a routine basis. It is estimated that 30 million Americans regularly experience unsafe noise levels, whereas just a few years ago the estimate was 10 million.
Types of Noise Pollution
The type of noise pollution you experience may vary depending on where you live, your job, and what kinds of leisure activities you pursue. For example, an airplane mechanic who lives next to a highway and takes the train to work will experience a lot more noise pollution than an insurance salesperson who lives in a small town.
Key examples of noise pollution include:
- Construction sites – Some buildings can take years to construct. If you live or work near the hubbub, you might be exposed to the sound for many hours every day. Construction workers wear ear protection, but those tangentially exposed to the action usually do not.
- Errant sound – One person’s desired sound is another’s noise pollution. House parties, music venues, sports stadiums, annoyingly loud car audio systems, and more all constitute noise pollution for those who didn’t sign up for the sound.
- Traffic – The sound of traffic is a concern for those who live on major throughways or next to highways. Airport traffic can also be a major problem.
- At home – Machines like lawnmowers and leaf blowers create a racket throughout the neighborhood. Even those living in more rural areas are not immune to these sounds. Modern home theater systems can also reach punishing noise levels. Humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, heaters, furnaces, and laundry machines all contribute to noise pollution, as well.
Effects of Noise Pollution
Noise pollution can lead to chronic stress, sometimes without our being able to identify that noise is the cause. If we’re surrounded by constant noise, we might not realize its impact. Excessive noise exposure has been linked not only to hearing loss and tinnitus but to:
- Trouble sleeping
- Cardiovascular issues
- Pain and fatigue
- Decreased performance at work or school
- Irritability and aggression
- Speech anomalies
We want to avoid these outcomes, and recognizing just how unpleasant it is to be continuously exposed to unsafe sound levels is part of that process.
How to Protect Yourself from Noise Pollution
While it is not reasonable to expect perfect quiet—especially in urban areas—there are some things we can do to help deal with noise issues and prevent not only hearing loss but the chronic stress that comes with too much noise.
- Know the limits – Sound levels reaching above 80 dBA (decibels A-weighted) are considered dangerous. At 85 dBA, permanent hearing loss sets in after 8 hours of continuous exposure. For every additional 3 dBA, the safe exposure time is cut in half. At 100 dBA, hearing loss occurs after about 15 minutes of exposure.
- 80 dBA – Alarm clock, garbage disposal
- 85 dBA – Diesel truck, snowblower
- 90 dBA – Dog’s squeaker toy, lawnmower, welder
- 95 dBA – Riding on the subway, food processor, belt sander
- 100 dBA – Riding a motorcycle, hand drill
If you’re not sure about the noise level in your home or workplace, consider measuring iit with an SPL (sound pressure level) meter. While there are apps for smartphones that measure SPL, these are likely to be inaccurate due to the differences between different cell phone microphones. They can, however, be a good rough guide to whether you should be concerned about the sound level.
- Absorb, absorb, absorb – In your home, the more sound can reflect off surfaces and bounce around, the louder it will effectively be. Simply putting a rug of sufficient size on the floor can help absorb sound and reduce its negative effects on your health and ears. Outside, a hedge, trees, and other plants outside your home can help reduce the amount of environmental sound that makes it indoors from busy streets.
- Wear hearing protection – If you take the train to work, consider wearing earplugs. Noise-canceling headphones are also a great investment that can allow you to enjoy media at a low volume while canceling out loud environmental sounds.
While noise pollution may be a nuisance, it doesn’t have to dominate our lives. With a few tricks, we can reduce its impact on our ears and our minds, and keep ourselves and our families safe and sane!