The real cost of noise pollution

To most people, noise pollution is considered little more than an annoyance. Perhaps your neighbor plays their stereo too loud, or starts using their leaf blower at 5am - it’s irritating, perhaps you lose a little sleep, but that feels like the end of it.

But increasingly, scientific research shows that noise pollution can have real, serious, measurable negative effects on the health and wellbeing of the public.

Real harm

A 2019 review found that noise pollution:

interferes with communication, disturbs daily activities, and disrupts sleep, leading to mental stress

and that

Upon chronic exposure, stress responses […] lead to autonomic imbalance, oxidative stress, inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction, which then accelerates the development of cerebrocardiovascular risk factors and disease

In other words, when a temporary annoyance becomes a chronic source of stress, it may increase the risk of serious health complications such as heart disease and stroke.

In 2011, the World Health Organisation estimated that environmental noise caused the loss of

at least one million healthy life years […] every year

in Western Europe, primarily through annoyance and sleep disturbance causing stress and increased risk of disease. What’s worse, noise pollution tends to be more severe in more economically disadvantaged areas, which often have higher population densities and less effective enforcement of noise pollution standards.

And things are getting worse over time - a 2011 study from Sweden found that disturbances from noise pollution from sources like neighbours, road traffic, railways and aircraft increased substantially in the ten-year period between 1997 and 2007.

Reversing the trend

So how can we make things better instead of worse? As someone who runs an ambient background noise generator, I’m probably biased towards solutions which mask noise pollution rather than reduce it. After all, given that a major problem with noise pollution is the stress caused by the irritation and loss of sleep that comes with intrusive noise, there may be some roll for solutions which help reduce that irritation and help people sleep.

But given the scale of the problem, major improvement can only come from reducing noise pollution at the source.

For traffic noise, a major source of noise pollution, traffic management can have some effect. Road redesign and lane narrowing in urban areas can reduce average speed and incidences of overtaking. Specially composed road surfaces can dampen traffic sounds.

Policies that reduce car use generally, such as increased funding for public transit and building more dedicated bike lanes can also help reduce noise. Technology also has a role to play - modern cars are much quieter than their older counterparts, and electric vehicles are quieter still, especially at city speeds.

Technology can help with airplane noise too. Modern aircraft engines produce less noise, and smarter navigation systems help route planes around population centers and allow for shorter takeoffs and landings.

Even smaller tools are becoming quieter - electrically powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers and power tools are gaining more popularity and are less noisy than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

Rewriting the rules

Technology is not a panacea for the problem of noise pollution. Electric devices help, but real change will need buy-in from local and national governments, and support from the public for new ordinances and laws. Noise pollution is a serious issue which does real, measurable harm to people. Here’s hoping we can start taking it – and the harm that it does – more seriously.

– Gabriel