Noise Pollution Takes Years Off Your Life: Study
Over the past 24 months, there has been a lot written about the affect that noise pollution has on your health. Whilst we’ve known about these issues for some time, it is interesting that a lot of what has been written recently has been the work of scientific studies. The validation of these issues is traditionally a large step forward in having them rectified.
In June 2019, The Times (UK) published a feature with the title “How noise pollution affects your health – it takes years off your life”. The article goes into detail regarding a five year World Health Organisation study that investigates the physiological reaction to noise and subsequent affect on your health.
Below are excerpts from The Times article.
“Stress, heart disease, diabetes — aural environmental pollution has a huge impact on our health and that of other animals, scientists tell Harry Wallop
You may not notice it, but noise is having an effect on your heart.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the impacts of noise include tinnitus, sleep disturbance, ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes and cognitive impairment in children. The WHO estimates that in western Europe traffic noise alone results in an annual loss of “at least one million healthy years of life”. Meanwhile, Bruitparif, a French organisation that monitors noise in Paris, has concluded that an average resident in the loudest parts of the French capital loses “more than three healthy life-years” to some combination of ailments caused or made worse by environmental noise pollution.
Stephen Stansfeld is the emeritus professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London and considered one of the world’s leading noise experts. He advised the WHO when it drew up its report into the health implications of noise. “This is not scaremongering,” he says. “The WHO guidelines took more than five years to publish. They are evidence-based and they are health-based.”
He explains why noise can harm humans, not just at night-time when sleep is disturbed, but during the day too. “It seems most likely to be a stress response, where people get physiologically aroused by the noise,” he says. “Our brains are programmed to respond to noises. In evolutionary terms, noises were potentially a source of danger. Over a long period, if you are stressed, that can put up your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attacks.”
Imperial College London has found that road-traffic noise above 50 decibels — quieter than human conversation — can increase the risk of hypertension and ischemic heart disease. “There’s consistent evidence that road-traffic noise leads to heart attacks,” Dr Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist at the university, says.
Stansfeld, Cai and other academics involved in this field make it clear that these studies strip out other possible negative effects from living near a road, such as air pollution and poorer quality housing, to focus on the noise. A study by Barts and the London School of Medicine analysed 380,000 residents in Vancouver, Canada, over a four-year period, looking also at air pollution, the amount of vegetation and the “walkability” of various neighbourhoods. Even after taking all the other environmental factors into account it found a clear link between noise pollution from traffic and type 2 diabetes.
Noise doesn’t only cause stress-related illnesses. More than ten years ago Stansfeld conducted a study into the effects of noise on schoolchildren in London, Amsterdam and Madrid, looking at memory and reading ability of those living under flight paths. “On average, those kids exposed to aircraft noise were two months behind reading age compared with other kids,” he says. “These are not vast effects, but they become a bit more meaningful because so many people are exposed to noise.”
I grew up under the Heathrow flight path and as a teenager, when on the phone to friends, they would ask what was the noise they could hear really loudly in my house. It was another Boeing 747 passing over the garden, but I couldn’t even hear it — I’d learnt to block it out.
Some academics believe that even noises to which you’ve stopped paying attention can affect your healthSWNS
Some academics believe that these noises — even the ones to which you’ve stopped paying attention — can have an effect on your health. “You may become psychologically adapted to it and stop noticing it,” Stansfield says, “but physiologically it is still having an effect on your pulse, your heart rate, your blood pressure.”
The Imperial College study explained that noise entering your ears even while you sleep can be “passed on to the cortex”, causing “arousals that may not result in full awakening, but may nevertheless cause increases in heart rate and blood pressure, disturbing normal circadian rhythms and fragmenting sleep”.
A total suppression of noise would be a drastic step to improve our long-term health, but perhaps we need to think more seriously about how we design our roads and cities. The NAS gives awards every year to construction companies and local authorities that help to make Britain a slightly quieter place. They are hardly glamorous, but they highlight how simple solutions can make a difference, be it “acoustic sheds” to shield noise from the extension to the Northern Line on the London Underground near residential housing or “noise barriers” placed around a buzzing electricity sub-station that was driving residents mad.
Noise pollution can be reversed. In the 1970s a researcher discovered that children at an elementary school in Manhattan, New York, were scoring wildly different exam results depending on the classroom in which they sat the test. Those who had been placed on the side of the school adjacent to the screeching tracks of an elevated train line had reading scores that were equivalent to 11 months behind those on the quieter side. After the transport authorities were persuaded to put rubber pads between the rails and sleepers on the track, a follow-up study in the early 1980s found that the disparity had been eradicated.”