Noise is Affecting our Health in More Ways Than We Think

Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. His primary research interests concern the effects of sleep loss on neurobehavioral and cognitive functions, population studies on sleep time and waking activities, the effects of traffic noise on sleep and health, and Astronaut behavioral health on long-duration space missions. These research areas overlap widely. Mathias has published 80+ journal articles and reviewed articles for 80+ scientific journals. He is currently on the editorial board of the journals Sleep Health and Frontiers in Physiology. Mathias spoke on the TEDMED Stage in 2018 and you can watch his Talk here.

Noise is a strange animal because it affects our health in many different ways, and we don’t even realize it. Short-term loud noise exposure damages our inner ear and is the reason for noise-induced hearing loss. As mentioned in my TEDMED talk: Whenever you have that ringing in your ear after you leave a concert or a bar, you can be certain that you have done some damage to your hearing, likely permanent. The problem is that we are only paying the price when we are older, in the form of tinnitus and hearing loss. Unfortunately, we are very bad at changing our current behavior based on something that we may experience in the future. Regardless, protecting yourself and your children from high noise levels should be a priority. Always ask yourself: “Is this (concert, fireworks, leaf blower) really worth destroying the hair cells of my inner ear?” As my colleague Daniel Fink recently pointed out, a safe exposure level that does not put our hearing at risk is likely 70 dBA, which is more than 30 times less the sound intensity than the 85 dB typically considered safe for the 8-hour workday.

However, noise affects our health in many different ways beyond hearing. The so-called non-auditory effects of noise include sleep disturbance, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and disturbed communication. The latter has been shown to affect academic performance of school children, but it can also have catastrophic consequences, e.g. if something is misunderstood in a hospital setting. I believe there are several reasons why environmental noise doesn’t receive the attention it deserves in public health politics. First, humans habituate to their environment. If you are constantly exposed to noise, you may not realize it any more. It can nevertheless very much affect your physiology and psyche. For example, I only realized how loud my every day environment was after I spent some time in a very quiet environment. Second, many of the health effects require long-term exposure to relevant noise levels before they manifest. As mentioned above, humans often have problems making the connection between a present exposure or behavior and future effects. Third, many of the activities that generate noise also generate a societal benefit and/or revenue. For example, an outdoor concert venue can be greatly enjoyable for the patrons, but it can be a torture for those living next to the venue without a realistic opportunity to evade the nightly noise. Likewise, it is very convenient to live close to major transportation infrastructure like a highway or a rail station. However, if you are living too close to rail tracks or roads, this convenience can be offset by the noise and pollution associated with the traffic. Finally, we definitely have a noise equity issue, and those exposed to high noise levels often neither have the means to live somewhere less noisy nor are they influential enough to push the policy envelope.

We always should think of ourselves both as noise recipients and as noise generators. There are things we can do individually to reduce noise levels. For example, we can decide to buy and use products that produce less noise (think of a rake instead of a leaf blower). Or we can postpone activities that generate noise to times considered less sensitive: If you don’t have to, don’t start mowing your lawn a 7 AM on a Saturday morning, your neighbors will thank you. In more general terms: be considerate. However, this will only take us so far. We still need strong noise regulation that is properly enforced to prevent health consequences. And even though the increases in health risks induced by noise may be relatively minor compared to other environmental or behavioral factors, this still constitutes a major public health problem, as noise is so ubiquitous, and so many people are exposed to relevant noise levels. Our research tells regulatory bodies at what noise level certain health effect can be expected, and that helps inform better noise policy.

Further reading:

Basner, M., Babisch, W., Davis, A., Brink, M., Clark, C., Janssen, S., Stansfeld, S.: Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health. The Lancet, 383(9925): 1325-1332, 2014.

Basner M.: Much ado about noise: health risks of traffic noise. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2016; 113(24): 405-6; DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2016.0405

WHO Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region, 2018