The Insidious Health Risk You Need To Know About: Noise Pollution

03/08/2017 03:55 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2017

Most people don’t know when permanent hearing damage is occurring. So they listen to loud concerts. Or sit in booming movie theaters. Or pressure wash their driveways without wearing hearing protection. They don’t give much thought to the ringing in their ears or their temporarily muffled hearing.

But those are signs a person has suffered permanent auditory damage. Harmful noise can be easy to ignore because it doesn’t always hurt in the same way it hurts to stub a toe.

“It’s a survival mechanism,” said David Sykes of the Acoustics Research Council. “Your body isn’t designed to turn off your hearing or to always know when its hearing mechanism is being damaged. The most dangerous thing is when you’re exposed, but you don’t feel pain because of the exposure.”

The risk from such noise exposure isn’t just hearing loss. Researchers are linking it to cardiovascular disease and other illnesses.

A growing chorus of experts wants to define noise pollution as a public health issue. Much like second-hand smoke. When former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop weighed in on the harm of second-hand smoke, it was a milestone in turning public opinion and fueled the country’s anti-smoking movement that lead to a ban on smoking in federal buildings as well as a ban in 36 states on smoking in workplaces, restaurants, bars and state-run gambling establishments.

The ranks of The Quiet Coalition, a new program of the nonprofit organization Quiet Communities, is filled with heavy hitters from the little-known world of noise pollution experts and researchers. They’re leading the charge to put noise on America’s public health agenda. They envision a world where leaf blowers don’t disrupt peaceful neighborhoods, the skies are quieter and people understand the risks associated with noise.

“Noise has been explained away in a lot of different places as an ‘annoyance’ or a ‘nuisance,’” said Jamie Banks, program director for The Quiet Coalition and executive director of Quiet Communities. “These words trivialize the problem in the mind of the public. We are bringing the evidence-based scientific perspective to frame it as a public health and environmental problem.”

The volume turned up

America is too loud. The makers of its planes, trains and automobiles, its landscaping and construction equipment, its toys and cinemas, restaurants and more are under little pressure to keep things quiet. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ostensibly oversees the 1972 Noise Control Act, but lost its funding to control noise more than three decades ago so there is little to no regulation of noise at the federal level.

There is a consensus in America that anything above 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA) will put a person at risk for hearing loss and 85 dBA warnings can be found on many products. But that is an industrial standard: the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that workers should not be exposed to an average of 85 dBA for more than eight hours.

The sound threshold for damage is much lower. The EPA recommends a 24-hour exposure limit of just 55 dB in residential areas to protect the public from adverse health effects and a 70 dB to prevent hearing loss. To put this in perspective, a washing machine or dishwasher is 70 dB, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep in mind the decibel scale is logarithmic. The Center for Disease Control states, “an 80 dB sound is ten times louder than a 70 dB sound, even though it is only perceived as about twice as loud.”

Noise ruined two years of Erica Walker’s life. She lived below a family whose kids thundered until midnight above her and resumed thundering at 6 a.m. She couldn’t sleep. Her landlord did nothing and neither did the city. She has since dedicated her life to studying noise pollution and is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She just completed the 2016 Greater Boston Noise Report where she mapped noise levels in Boston neighborhoods and issued report cards. So for example, Back Bay earned a B and Jamaica Plain a D-.

It’s a tool to hold cities accountable and she wants to see her work replicated around the country.

“I’m tired of people complaining about noise but cities not doing anything about it,” she said. “I’m tired of academics studying it but not doing anything to inform the community.” That’s why she’s making her noise report as user-friendly as possible.

Her next project is even more ambitious: the National Neighborhood Noise Survey 2020. Her goal is to better understand how urban noise affects people’s health and well-being across the country and encourages everyone to take the survey. Do people living by noise have an increased risk of diabetes? Hypertension? Depression?

She recently published a study about how short-term exposure to noise affects heart rate. Other studies have shown noise increases risk for coronary heart disease and hypertension.

Hearing problems

But hearing loss is huge too.

The number of Americans with hearing loss has more than doubled between 2000 and 2015 to 48 million, according to the Hearing Health Foundation. But among U.S. adults ages 20 to 69, hearing loss has slightly declined over the last decade, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Nevertheless, those 70 and older, who weren’t in the study, still have the highest prevalence of hearing loss of any age group.

And more is being discovered about hearing loss including “hidden hearing loss” whereby people don’t exhibit traditional hearing loss but have trouble understanding speech in loud environments.

A lot of people don’t want to talk about their hearing loss because they associate it with aging. So when Daniel Fink, a doctor and founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, speaks at an event, he will often say, “Hi, I’m Dan and I have tinnitus and hyperacusis.”

Tinnitus is ringing in the ears and hyperacusis is sensitivity to everyday sounds.

“Part of what I’m doing is trying to destigmatize hearing disorders,” he said.

When he was 18, he had a manufacturing job so loud the company employed many who were already deaf. Fast forward to a New Year’s Eve dinner in 2007 with exceptionally loud music: that night left him with permanent ringing in his ears. The damage he suffered in his youth may have laid the groundwork for the tinnitus, he said.

A lot of harm could have been avoided. Almost 40 years ago, top officials in the U.S. knew noise pollution was a serious health problem.

Former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart said back in 1978, “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”

Just six years earlier, the 1972 Noise Control Act had passed under former U.S. President Richard Nixon and the EPA was tasked with implementing it. But the Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded in 1981 at the start of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

Its ghost still haunts the halls of Congress. The Quiet Skies Caucus is a mix of congressional Democrats and Republicans who argue for refunding that 1972 law.

The reason the Noise Control Act and the 1978 Quiet Communities Act stay on the books despite the lack of funding, is because both laws allow the federal government to preempt state laws that might seek to regulate noise from aircraft, railways and other transportation involved in interstate commerce, said Sykes.

“When you start talking about noise, you run into the Federal Aviation Administration and they always assert the point that states and localities can’t tell them what to do.”

The FAA declined to comment.

Sykes hopes that by defining noise as a health problem as opposed to a nuisance, it would lessen the power of the FAA to control the issue and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would weigh in.

A public health issue

So Sykes and others with The Quiet Coalition aim to change the public’s perception of the issue.

The next step is “making people understand it’s a public health issue and once people understand that,” perhaps the FAA wouldn’t have as much authority, Sykes said.

Also, label consumer and industrial products with noise ratings, argues Fink of The Quiet Coalition in an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health. It can be done, he points out: just look at the decibel ratings on quieter dishwashers.

“Effective noise control technologies have long existed,” he writes.

Sykes and The Quiet Coalition want the current U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to take on noise the way Koop did with secondhand smoke.

“Noise is like secondhand or environmental tobacco smoke,” said Fink. “It is both a nuisance and a health hazard. Secondhand smoke causes lung disease and cancer. Noise causes hearing loss and other auditory disorders, and at lower levels causes other health problems such as hypertension, heart disease and stroke.”

Carrie Sturrock is a writer and company storyteller for Indow.

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