Mon, Mar 12, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Noise pollution a major ‘silent’ killer in cities, researchers say

Research has found correlations between high levels of urban noise, mainly caused by traffic, and heart conditions, as well as staggering levels of hearing loss in cities including Guangzhou and Cairo

By Matthew Keegan  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

The constant roar of traffic, incessant construction noise, piercing sirens, honking horns, shrieking loudspeakers — noise in cities is clearly a nuisance.

However, it is also a danger.

The WHO has described noise pollution as an underestimated threat that can cause hearing loss, cardiovascular problems, cognitive impairment and stress.

“Noise pollution causes hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, strokes and death,” said Daniel Fink, chairman of the Quiet Coalition, a community of health and legal professionals concerned with the adverse effects of environmental noise.

Noise pollution is often cited as one of the main factors reducing quality of life in large, 24-hour cities, such as New York City — where more than 200,000 noise complaints were recorded in 2016. It causes stress, which has its own adverse effects on health.

While the effect of noise on mental health has not been studied extensively, a paper published in journal PLOS One by scientists from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, said that “strong noise annoyance is associated with a twofold higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general population.”

A study by experts at the American College of Cardiology linked noise pollution to increased cardiovascular problems — high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke and coronary heart disease — through the body’s stress mediated response, resulting in the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn damages blood vessels.

At a conference on noise organized by the European Commission in April last year, noise was described as “the silent killer” with potentially severe consequences for our physical and mental health.

And yet its effects remain unreported and underestimated.

Eoin King, an assistant professor of acoustics and author of the book Environmental Noise Pollution, calls noise the ignored pollutant.

“Environmental noise still continues to be poorly understood by practitioners, policymakers and the general public,” he said.

Most worrying is the effect on children, King said.

“Studies considering the effect that noise may have on children have found that tasks such as reading, attention span, problem-solving and memory appear to be most affected by exposure to noise,” he said.

The issue is compounded by debate over how much noise it is safe to be exposed to.

In its Make Listening Safe guide, the WHO says that 85 decibels (dB) is considered the highest safe exposure level, up to eight hours.

However, others — Fink among them — have said that is still too loud.

A car measures 70dB, a jackhammer 100dB and a plane taking off 120dB, the WHO said.

“Though there is no set threshold to establish risk, we do know that anything above 60dB can increase risk for heart disease,” Thomas Muenzel from the Mainz University Medical Center said.

A BBC report found that parts of the London Underground were “loud enough to damage people’s hearing,” with noise levels greater than 105dB on many lines.

Some were “so loud they would require hearing protection if they were workplaces,” the report said.

Concerned about the risk of hearing loss in cities, Mimi Hearing Technologies last year created a World Hearing Index to draw attention to the issue.

With the results of hearing tests of 200,000 of their users worldwide and data on noise pollution from WHO and Sintef, a Norwegian research organization, the index plotted levels of noise pollution and hearing loss in 50 cities.

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