Noise is Officially a Public Health Hazard. But What Does That Mean?
Have you ever stopped to think about your level of exposure to dangerously loud noises on a day-to-day basis? It probably happens a lot more often than you'd think. It's not uncommon for us to be startled by a loud noise, only to almost immediately forget it happened.
One might even go so far as to say that it's routine—enough so that we don't even realize the cumulative damage it's causing until we start experiencing the first symptoms of hearing loss. Making matters worse is the fact that the environments in which the majority of us now live are increasingly urban and filled with potentially harmful noise pollution. From cars and traffic to construction work, exposure to harmful noise is unpleasantly commonplace.
It's almost ironic, given that noise has been recognized as a public health concern since at least 1968. To make matters worse is the fact that since then, very little has actually been done to address the risk. And, like it or not, there is a risk.
A significant one. According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program, loud noise isn't just an annoyance or a minor health risk. It's "a top environmental risk to health across all age and social groups and an addition to the public health burden."
"Prolonged exposure to high levels of noise impairs human health and well-being," the report continues. "Traffic and other urban noises affect not only human well-being, but also disturb and endanger the survival of species crucial to the urban environment."
Despite the tireless work of advocates, researchers, and medical professionals. Even measures like the U.S. Noise Control Act, passed in the United States in 1972, was little more than a band-aid. The promise the Act made—that the United States will "promote an environment for Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and wellbeing—remains both unfulfilled and ignored even now, 50 years later.
It gets worse. See, as it turns out, all this noise isn't just bad for the ears. It's bad for the body as well.
It's been proven that long-term noise exposure has a multitude of far-reaching health consequences, including:
- Mood disturbances
- Emotional dysregulation
- Excessive stress
- Sleep deprivation
- Cardiovascular issues
- Cerebrovascular issues
- Digestive issues
- Exacerbation of conditions such as depression
- Interference in cognition, learning, and hearing amongst young children
"In Toronto, traffic accounts for roughly 60% of all urban noise," Tor Oiamo, Associate Professor at Ryerson University and one of the leading noise researchers in Canada, told Global News." We think of it as a part of daily life. [But according to numerous studies,] the higher the exposure, the higher the risk of having ischemic heart disease or heart disease, which is some structural change in your heart, which leads to reduced function of the heart, which can, of course, lead to heart attacks, and potentially mortality."
"[Human hearing] didn't evolve to be able to shut off [noise] just because it's something we want to ignore," he continued. "You can't turn your ears off. Your body’s still listening. You’re still hearing these things, and it’s still activating our nervous system, potentially while we’re sleeping."
Even bylaws that limit unwanted sounds aren't necessarily going to be enough. Look, for example, at the occupation of Ottawa that took place earlier this year. Participants subjected unwilling residents of the city to traumatic noise at all hours of the day—even a single truck horn can output noise levels between 100-150 decibels (dB).
This was two solid weeks of exposure to multiple horns. It's unsurprising, then, that some residents have continued to report hearing lingering phantom noise even well after the convoy departed. And that's not even getting into the harm that the truckers likely caused to their own hearing—and the hearing of their children.
At this point, we're left with one question. What exactly can we do about all this? How exactly do we address the myriad risks to health and well-being when public demands for government action have gone largely unanswered?
Unfortunately, that's the bad news. At the moment, there isn't much that can be done. We simply need to hope that the issue will start being treated with the seriousness it deserves.