You might not be able to see it, but noise pollution is present all around us, and its presence is negatively affecting the lives of millions of people. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 1 billion people worldwide suffer from hearing loss and that noise pollution is a major contributing factor. In the United States, it’s estimated to be the cause of hearing loss in as many as 22 million people. Noise pollution can cause hearing damage, hearing loss, and other health conditions, but modern life is only getting louder, and the public health crisis surrounding it is only getting worse.
There’s no denying it: The world is getting louder. And it’s doing so at a fairly rapid rate. The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division estimates that noise pollution doubles or triples every 30 years. Whether it’s the sound of traffic as you take a walk, the whir of a blender making your morning smoothie, or your neighbor using their leafblower on a quiet morning, noise pollution has crashed its way into all of our lives.
The reasons are numerous. Population growth and urbanization is one. After all, it only makes sense that as more people live close together, we hear all of those noise-generation life activities, plus more traffic, more construction, and more garbage trucks in the morning.
The development of new technology is also a reason. After all, before airplanes weren’t invented, the noise of planes taking off didn’t keep entire neighborhoods awake. Without cars, there was no aggressive traffic and honking horns. And without PA systems, no one was leaving rock concerts with a ringing in their ears.
Our lives are becoming noisier and noisier and silence is more elusive than ever. And that can have far-reaching consequences on our health and the environment.
Traditionally, noise pollution is defined as any “unwanted or disturbing sound,” usually with the added caveat that the unwanted sound results in harmful effects on the health of a human or animal.
Sound becomes unwanted when it disrupts normal activities like conversation, sleep, or the ability to concentrate. In short: when it diminishes your quality of life. Noise pollution is more than just an “annoyance,” however, because it can cause serious health problems.
Wondering what the difference is between sound and noise? Generally, a “sound” is just something we hear, whereas a “noise” is something we hear but don’t necessarily want to hear. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a sound must be above 65 decibels to be defined as noise pollution. Noise starts to become harmful when it is above 75 decibels, which is about as loud as a dishwasher or kitchen blender. Sounds at or above 85 decibels (a noisy restaurant, passing train, even a hair dryer) can cause damage to your hearing over time, while any loud noise exposure above 120 decibels (fireworks, a concert) can cause immediate damage.
Unfortunately, there are seemingly endless causes of noise pollution. In cities, the leading cause of noise pollution is traffic. Industrial noise, construction sites, air traffic noise, events (especially those with loudspeakers), subway trains, household activities (like leaf blowers and power tools), and even animals (barking dogs, crowing roosters) are all common sources.
Noise pollution happens underwater as well. Ships, sonar devices, and oil drills all create noise pollution in an otherwise tranquil ocean, which impacts all marine life, especially whales and dolphins, who use echolocation for everything from eating to mating.
Most cities have noise limits, but they are still inherently noisy (especially during the day) because of urban sounds like traffic, subways, construction, and proximity to others. But, according to Amerisleep, the five cities with the most noise pollution are Elizabeth, New Jersey; Inglewood, California; Grapevine, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; and Doral, Florida. It should come as no surprise that each of those cities is densely populated, located near an airport, and considered a major transportation hub.
Unfortunately, the construction outside your office or the dog that barks late into the night isn’t just annoying—noise pollution is a hazard to your health.
The most common adverse effect is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), permanent hearing loss caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises or a sudden, extremely loud noise. The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable. You can read all about it here if you want to learn more.
Noise pollution affects far more than just your hearing, however. Other effects of noise pollution are high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, and stress. It makes sense then why it’s a true public health crisis.
Loud sounds are a part of life. Whether it’s seeing your favorite band, mowing the lawn, or walking down the street when an ambulance passes, we can’t escape loud noises. What we can do, luckily, is try to prevent the hearing damage that results from them.
The first thing you can do for noise pollution prevention is learn to recognize when noise levels are too high. If you need to shout to be heard or can’t understand what someone an arm’s length away is saying, the room is too loud and could damage your hearing over a prolonged time.
Of course, those situations are inevitable, especially when you take into consideration that something as simple as vacuuming or riding the subway can be technically “too loud.” If you know you will be in an environment where the constant noise will exceed 85 decibels for a prolonged period of time, wear hearing protection. This could be earplugs, earmuffs, or semi-insert earplugs. While there’s a high chance most people aren’t going to start wearing earplugs when they vacuum, it’s a good idea to make wearing them a habit for things like concerts or mowing the lawn.
And if you have been in an environment with sustained loud noises, like a concert, give your ears some quiet time so they can recover. In addition, when you do have control over the noise level (watching TV, listening to the car radio, wearing headphones), keep the volume down. Those devices tend to exceed the threshold for safe listening, especially if you’re listening for a long time.
Learn to recognize when noise levels are too high
Limit the length of time you’re exposed to loud sounds
Wear hearing protection when you can’t avoid loud noises
Let your ears recover after prolonged exposure to loud noises
Turn the volume down on personal devices
Almost everyone experiences some level of hearing damage during their lifetime. But it’s not always easy to know when that damage leads to hearing loss, especially with age-related hearing loss, since it tends to happen slowly over time.
Symptoms of hearing loss can include trouble understanding people (or asking people to repeat themselves a lot), listening to the TV or radio at a volume that is louder than those around you need to hear, ringing in the ears, and avoiding social situations because it’s hard for you to hear in loud environments.
People who have developed hearing loss may benefit from hearing aids. And for those with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss, Eargo hearing aids may be a great option. They’re virtually invisible, rechargeable, and can be fitted at home, making them a simple way to truly improve your quality of life.
Learn more about why hearing health matters.
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