Auditory Overload

Keep an ear out for health risks associated with too much noise

By Barbara Pierce


Whether we want it to be a part of our lives or not, noise is inescapable. Noise levels throughout the world are growing at alarming levels.

We’re living in the noisiest time and place ever — phones going off constantly, the hum of traffic, the obnoxious noise of leaf blowers, and the sound of construction.

Peace and quiet have gone by the wayside, and that’s just sad. Not only is it sad, it’s detrimental to our health.

Noise has pretty serious consequences for your health, it turns out. Too much noise interferes with all kinds of things, from concentration, which is obvious, to the release of stress hormones.

Sound can trigger the stress response, causing high levels of stress hormones to flood our bodies. Chronic stress compromises your immune system.

As a result, noise pollution has been linked with heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Even minor responses to noise pollution have serious outcomes.

Each honk of a horn, scream of a siren, and buzz from a phone is met with a corresponding spike in stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure. Even though we may think we’re able to ignore all these sounds, our bodies are mounting a stress response. Over time, the cumulative effect takes a toll on our body.

Stress hormones aggravate conditions such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, chronic fatigue, mental health issues, aggressive behavior and several others.

Loud street noise is now considered the No. 2 threat to public health, after air pollution, declared the World Health Organization. A study in Germany found that traffic noise caused nearly 2,000 heart attacks each year in Germany alone. People appear to be particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of noise pollution at night, during sleep.

“Everyone should be concerned about noise,” said noise control engineer Bob Andres of Baldwinsville. Andres, owner of Environmental Safety Associates, Syracuse, is an independent noise and safety consultant and serves as technical adviser to Noise Free America: a Coalition to Promote Quiet.

“Unnecessary noise and unwanted sound are a community issue,” he added.

So what counts as too much noise?

“One man’s noise is another man’s pleasure,” Andres said. “Loud rock music played by your neighbor across the canal may cause you to pull out your hair. It’s subjective.”

“But what is considered excessive noise is determined by law,” he explained. “You can take a meter and see if it exceeds the ordinance.”

Dangerous levels

Noise levels over 80 decibels are considered potentially hazardous. Increasingly, everyday sounds approach or exceed this level. For example, a vacuum cleaner is around 70 decibels. Lawnmowers, shop tools, and truck traffic approach 90 decibels. Snowmobiles and chain saws are around 100 decibels.

Physically painful noise includes car stereos at 140 decibels, a jackhammer at 130, jet engines at 140, and the peak of a rock concert at 150. Other sources of noise between 90 and 140 decibels include motorcycles, firearms, firecrackers, headset listening systems, tractors, garbage disposals, blenders, and noisy toys.

Loud noises do cause hearing loss, said Robert Bishton, hearing specialist at Action Ear Hearing of New Hartford.

Repeated or prolonged exposure to anything over 85 decibels can harm your inner ear. Music played through earphones can easily reach 105 decibels.

“Even one blast of a shotgun can cause damage,” he said.

Loudness isn’t the only issue, though; it’s also about how continual it is.

How to protect ourselves from the stress of noise pollution?

If you’re moving, find a quiet home. Sit still and really listen before you sign the contract. Check for double-paned windows and noisy neighbors.

In your existing home, hang muffling drapes. At night, consider a white-noise machine or fan to mask noise.

Do your best to avoid seriously noisy situations, and always target the quiet parts of noisy areas or limit your exposure to a small amount of time. And yes, you are allowed to take noise-canceling headphones or earplugs around with you.

Wear earplugs while sleeping, particularly if you don’t live in a quiet area.

Truth be told, we’re not likely to stop using our smart phones and headphones. Traffic is getting worse, not better, and noise can be expected to increase.

Instead, our goal should be to consume more silence. It will help keep the noise from deafening us. And it will certainly help keep it from demoralizing us. Besides, silence is what makes sound meaningful in the first place.

Pursue silence. Seek out silence. Silence is so important in our lives. Make times of silence a priority in your life. Times of silence are healing for us physically and mentally. Turn off your phone, remove all distractions and just sit quietly.

As a consultant for Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet, Andres has recommendations in terms of how to protect yourself from the harmful effects of noise:

— Wear ear protectors or custom-made earplugs.

— Limit your exposure to noise.

— Don’t sit next to the speakers at concerts, discos, or auditoriums.

— Turn down the volume when using headsets or listening to music in confined place such as a car.