Environmental Noise: The Truth


While excess noise can be annoying and causes sleepless nights, environmental pollution can have much more serious health implications. Prolonged exposure to excessive noise can cause a range of health problems including stress, fatigue from lack of sleep and poor concentration.

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This can lead to reduced productivity in the workplace and communication difficulties.

In the long term, it can lead to more serious health issues including tinnitus, hearing loss, cardiovascular disease, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In fact, the European Environmental Agency blames 10,000 premature deaths each year on noise pollution.

What are the main noise sources?

A study by the World Health Organisation analysed environmental noise from trains, planes and motor vehicles, as well as noises from various city sources. The most common source of noise is road traffic – with 125 million Europeans experiencing noise levels greater than 55 decibels at all times of the day and night.

Believed to be harmful to health, the WHO study, Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise, ranked traffic noise as the second biggest environmental threat to public health, behind only air pollution.

Railway and airport noise cause more complaints than traffic noise. Campaign group Hacan (representing people living under Heathrow’s flight path) claims up to 920,000 people are affected by noise from the airport. This is a greater number of people than for any other European airport.

How does noise affect our sleep?

Sounds that we’re not even aware we’re hearing can affect us as much as any other noise. Our ears are so sensitive that they never rest, even when we’re sleeping. They are still working and picking up sounds that are interpreted by the brain.

The background noise of traffic, planes or music coming from a neighbour’s property are still being processed. Our body reacts to them in different ways. The most obvious way is interrupted sleep, leading to tiredness, impaired judgement and impaired memory.

People who live near airports and busy roads suffer from more headaches, take more sedatives and sleeping pills and are prone to minor accidents, research has shown. Even if you’re sleeping and unaware of the noise, it appears to trigger an acute stress response. This can raise the heart rate and blood pressure and this can increase instances of cardiovascular disease and other health problems over time.

What are the more serious health issues?

The majority of premature deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, heart attacks and high blood pressure. The WHO believes noise sparks the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which damages our blood vessels over prolonged periods.

Chronic noise exposure could exacerbate insulin resistance, leading to a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. According to a medical report in the Noise and Health Journal, noise acts as an environmental stress factor that can lead to an increase in cortisol levels, inhibiting the activity of our insulin secretion cells.

Noise pollution has also been linked with behavioural issues in children, cognitive impairment and the more obvious hearing damage. The European Environment Agency blames 43,000 hospital admissions and 900,000 cases of hypertension per year on noise.

A study by sleep experts at Harvard University monitored the brain activity of volunteers while sleeping. They were played 10-second bursts of sounds including city traffic, machinery, toilets flushing, phones ringing and loud talking. Their brainwaves spiked in jagged patterns of neural activity when the sounds were played, showing the damage that occurs even when sleeping.

What can be done to combat noise pollution?

In the case of noise nuisance, UK residents have the right to live in an environment that doesn’t damage their health. You can complain to the local authority about excess noise and they are legally obliged to act on it. They will issue a noise abatement notice, so the person or business causing the noise will have to show they are taking steps to abate the source of the problem.

This may include restricting the hours of work if it’s a business causing the problems, or setting a noise limit. There are various options – residents pass on the problem to their local authority and the person causing the noise must take measures to remedy it. With more than half a million complaints of excess noise to councils last year, it’s apparent people understand their rights and are using the law to make their voice heard.

Sound Planning offers environmental noise assessments, performed by our experienced acoustic engineers. Our services for environmental noise control are compliant with British Standard (BS) 7445:2003, which specifies the measurements and descriptions of environmental noise. Give us a call on 01252 711972 for further details of our noise control products and services.

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