A few weeks ago, I nearly lost my mind. All day, every day, all I could think about was the shrill, insistent alarm beeping at 3-second intervals somewhere down the street. It turned out to be a faulty mouse repellent device (is that a thing?!) that someone hadn’t bothered to fix when it went haywire. I’m pretty sure that this tiny nuisance spiked the blood pressure of every person on my street for a week.
So goes city life. In most neighbourhoods, urban living means noisy living. At any time of day, you can hear the rush of traffic, the clanging of construction, the chatter of pedestrians walking past your window. The United Nations estimates that, by 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in a city. Most of them, even without realizing it, will be exposed to dangerous levels of noise pollution.
The average person will begin to hear a sound when it rises above zero decibels of noise. If you live on a busy city street, you’ll most likely experience a decibel level somewhere in the 60s and 70s. That’s a safe zone, but exposure to any sound over 85 decibels will put you at risk of temporary or permanent hearing loss. Now consider noise from sources like motorcycle engines (95 decibels), nightclubs (110 decibels), and passing sirens (120 decibels). Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult to avoid damaging noise pollution.
The health hazards of noise
Noise pollution interferes with quality of life in obvious ways. Think about how aggravating it is to try to enjoy time at home with a motor revving outside your front door. It interrupts conversations. It makes relaxation time anything but relaxing. It makes it difficult to concentrate on anything but the noise.
Less obvious, though, are the ways that noise actually threatens public health.
“Noise pollution is considered not only an environmental nuisance but also a threat to public health.” –World Health Organization
The World Health Organization’s European arm has studied the health ramifications of noise pollution in great depth. The results are disturbing, to say the least. While some forms of pollution are decreasing, the WHO finds that noise pollution is on the rise—and trampling all over public health on its way up.
The WHO links noise pollution to the following health risks:
Hearing loss & tinnitus
Most people have experienced some degree of short-term hearing loss after exposure to a loud noise. Over time, repeated exposure can result in permanent hearing loss. And as if dealing with loud noises isn’t annoying enough, many people exposed to noise suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear.
WHO research indicates a higher rate of heart disease in people exposed to high levels of road or air traffic noise. Why? Loud or persistent noises activates the body’s stress response. The release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, in turn, raise heart rate and increase blood pressure. That’s bad news for the cardiovascular system. WHO studies from 2012 link noise pollution to 910,000 additional cases of hypertension across Europe every year and 10,000 premature deaths related to coronary heart disease or strokes.
Even when you’re asleep, your ears pick up sounds and send them to the brain for processing. If you’re sleeping in a noisy area, your sleep will become less restorative and more fragmented. That loss of sleep, not surprisingly, is tied to higher incidence of conditions like depression, anxiety, and diabetes.
The cumulative effects of sleep deprivation and constant irritation caused by noise range from stress and poor concentration to productivity losses in the workplace. More than 20 studies indicate the negative impact of noise on reading and memory, particularly in children. By interfering with central processing and language acquisition, noise pollution has the potential to stunt long-term learning and educational achievement.
Anxiety & depression
Don’t underestimate the impact of noise pollution on mental health. One 2016 study found that people living in areas with more road traffic noise were 25 percent more likely to have depression symptoms than people living in quieter neighbourhoods. Another study focused on people living near seven major airports and found that a 10-decibel increase in aircraft noise was associated with a 28 percent increase in the use of anxiety medication.
What’s the solution?
Cities like Toronto, whose public health department released a report raising an alarm about its dangerous levels of noise pollution, have started to factor noise into decisions surrounding building codes, planning requirements, and traffic management. Increasingly sophisticated highway noise barriers are going up from Seoul to Seattle.
Ultimately, though, your best protection against noise pollution is your choice of living location. For location-specific noise data, check out Local Logic’s quiet score on partner sites like Realtor.ca, Centris, and Remax. You’ll find a 1-10 quiet rating for individual properties, and you can also use our quiet filter to create a heat map of your city or neighbourhood, down to individual streets and city blocks. Check it out here.
You wouldn’t choose to live somewhere with terrible air pollution, so why would you put up with noise pollution? The next time you’re in the market for a new place to live, consider the noise around you. The difference between quiet and loud might just be a healthy life.