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What is noise pollution? Definition and examples - glossary -

What is noise pollution? Definition and examples

Human-made sound – anthropophony – comprises both ‘controlled’ sounds (such as vocalizations, speech, and music) and uncontrolled sounds (such as those coming from barking dogs, nightlife, traffic, or construction). Though controlled sound might seem less undesirable, both types of sound can become noise pollution (also known as sound pollution), depending on volume and context. For example, even a favorite song would become unendurable if blared through the bedroom wall at three in the morning. 

However, though considered a problem as far back as the time of ancient Rome, it is only recently that noise pollution is beginning to be taken seriously.

Noise in excess of 65 decibels (dB) is defined as noise pollution by the World Health Organization (WHO), second only to “air pollution caused by very fine particulate matter” as one of the major causes of ill health in Western Europe. During the night, sleep is considered to be impossible if ambient noise levels exceed 30 dB. Seventy-five decibels can be harmful, while sounds reaching beyond 120 dB can cause pain (while even two hours’ exposure to 100 dB requires upwards of 16 hours’ recuperation). For the record, this article was written in premises on a road emitting upwards of 70 db; check the sound levels you are exposed to in London, Paris, and New York, and find out about the quietest places in some of the world’s loudest cities.

It is also worth noting, that, because we experience sound intensity logarithmically, rather than linearly, the decibel scale is also not linear. Instead, 10 dB increments increase the intensity of noise by 10 times, but are only perceived as twice as loud – so an 80 dB sound is 10 times as intense as one of 70 db. But, as human hearing will not perceive that tenfold increase, it will only sound twice as loud, meaning that it’s difficult to judge when a sound may be damagingly loud.

Beyond tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), noise pollution causes harmful impacts for both human and animal life. Exposure to noise pollution can result in a variety of effects (especially for the young and old). Physical outcomes include headaches, respiratory agitation, high blood pressure, and, in extreme circumstances, gastritis, colitis, type 2 diabetes, and “an increased incidence of arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, heart failure, and stroke”. Psychological effects (in animals as well as humans) include annoyance, stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety, hysteria, and aggressive behavior, as well as sleep disturbance and impaired cognitive performance, including negative effects on memory and concentration. As a result, children are less able “to learn properly at school”, in turn causing society to pay a high economic price. 

The WHO regards noise pollution as being among “the most dangerous environmental threats to health”, while the European Environment Agency states that noise is responsible for 12,000 premature deaths and 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease every year. 

In addition, in grotesque figures which will surprise no one, in noise pollution in the United States appears to reach its highest levels in low-income and racial minority neighborhoods (including maximum exposure affecting schoolchildren from ethnic minority or poorer backgrounds). In London, “disadvantaged areas” are similarly the most at risk of noise pollution; consider “a flat on Old Kent Road, with a bus stop outside and no green infrastructure to deaden the sounds of vehicular traffic” versus “a house on a quiet, tree-lined street in South London, set back from the pavement with a large front garden”.

In the animal kingdom, biological groups including birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, and invertebrates are all negatively impacted by noise pollution. High noise levels can cause hearing loss, disrupt navigation and reproduction, and even have fatal consequences due to their inhibition of predator/prey detection and avoidance. This is true both for terrestrial and marine organisms. Noise from shipping and other human activities like seismic surveys and oil drilling are particularly deleterious to cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) which “rely on echolocation to communicate, navigate, feed, and find mates”; for example, naval sonar has been responsible for mass strandings of whales. Underwater noise pollution is also a significant stressor on coral reefs.

Precautions against noise pollution include insulating homes with noise-absorbing materials, while the EU has promoted barriers which can mitigate against the sounds generated by motorways and trains. Spongier, quieter types of asphalt can also be helpful. Legislation to protect areas like parks or natural spaces and to separate residential areas from, for example, airports, would also be significant steps forward.

Definition and examples Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash is a completely free streaming service of 800+ nature sounds from around the world, offering natural soundscapes and guided meditations for people who wish to listen to nature, relax, and become more connected.

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