Noise: A Health Problem - JuniperCivic.com
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Originally published in the September 2000 Juniper Berry Magazine

Noise: A Health Problem

Racket, din, clamor, noise, whatever you want to call it, unwanted sound is America's most widespread nuisance. But noise is more than just a nuisance. It constitutes a real and present danger to people's health. Day and night, at home, at work, and at play, noise can produce serious physical and psychological stress. No one is immune to this stress. Though we seem to adjust to noise by ignoring it, the ear, in fact, never closes and the body still responds – sometimes with extreme tension, similar to a strange sound in the night.

The annoyance we feel when faced with noise is the most common outward symptom of the stress building up inside us. Indeed, because irritability is so apparent, legislators have made public annoyance the basis of many noise abatement programs. The more subtle and more serious health hazards associated with stress caused by noise traditionally have been given much less attention. Nonetheless, when we are annoyed or made irritable by noise, we should consider these symptoms fair warning that other things may be happening to us, some of which may be damaging to our health.

Of the many health hazards related to noise, hearing loss is the most clearly observable and measurable by health professionals. The other hazards are harder to pin down. For many of us, there may be a risk that exposure to the stress of noise increases susceptibility to disease and infection. The more susceptible among us may experience noise as a complicating factor in heart problems and other diseases. Noise that causes annoyance and irritability in healthy persons may have serious consequences for those already ill in mind or body.

Noise affects us throughout our lives. For example, there are indications of effects on the unborn child when mothers are exposed to industrial and environmental noise. During infancy and childhood, youngsters exposed to high noise levels may experience learning difficulties and generally suffer poorer health. Later in life, the elderly may have trouble falling asleep and obtaining necessary amounts of rest.

Why, then, is there not greater alarm about these dangers? Perhaps it is because the link between noise and many disabilities or diseases has not yet been conclusively demonstrated. Perhaps it is because we tend to dismiss annoyance as a price to pay for living in the modern world. It may also be because we still think of hearing loss as only an occupational hazard.

The effects of noise on health are often misunderstood or unrecognized. Well-documented studies to clarify the role of noise as a public health hazard are still required, but we at least know from existing evidence that the danger is real.

Noise loud enough to cause hearing loss is virtually everywhere today. Our jobs, our entertainment and recreation, and our neighborhoods and homes are filled with potentially harmful levels of noise. It is no wonder then that 20 million or more Americans are estimated to be exposed daily to noise that is permanently damaging to their hearing.

When hearing loss occurs, it is in most cases gradual, becoming worse with time. The first awareness of the damage usually begins with the loss of occasional words in general conversation and with difficulty understanding speech heard on the telephone. Unfortunately, this recognition comes too late to recover what is lost. By then, the ability to hear the high frequency sounds of, for example, a flute or piccolo or even the soft rustling of leaves will have been permanently diminished. As hearing damage continues, it can become quite significant and handicapping. And there is no cure. Hearing aids do not restore noise-damaged hearing, although they can be of limited help to some people.

When unwanted sounds intrude into our environment, noise exists. We have all experienced to varying degrees the annoyance and irritation caused by noise. Sometimes this annoyance is brought about by disruption of our sleep or difficulty in falling asleep. At other times, it may be because we have to raise our voices over background noise to be heard or because we are distracted from our activities.

Except for the serious problem of hearing loss, there is no human illness known to be directly caused by noise. But throughout dozens of studies, noise has been clearly identified as an important cause of physical and psychological stress, and stress has been directly linked with many of our most common health problems. Thus, noise can be associated with many of these disabilities and diseases, which include heart disease, high blood pressure, headaches, fatigue and irritability.

Noise is also suspected to interfere with children's learning and with normal development of the unborn child. Noise is reported to have triggered extremely hostile behavior among persons presumably suffering from emotional illness. It is suspected to lower our resistance, in some cases, to the onset of infection and disease.

However, most Americans are largely unaware that noise poses such significant dangers to their health and welfare. The reasons for this lack of awareness are clear. Noise is one of many environmental causes of stress and cannot easily be identified as the source of a particular physical or mental ailment by the layman. Another reason is that biomedical and behavioral research is only now at the point where health hazards stemming from noise can actually be named, even though some specific links have yet to be found.

In protecting health, absolute proof comes late. To wait for it is to invite disaster or to prolong suffering unnecessarily. Those things within man's power to control which impact upon the individual in a negative way, which infringe upon his sense of integrity, and interrupt his pursuit of fulfillment, are hazards to public health.

It is finally clear that noise is a significant hazard to public health. Truly, noise is more than just an annoyance.

Middle Village Noise Diary

6:15 AM- News helicopters covering accident on Long Island Expressway hover over house over Middle Village for 20 minutes.

6:55 AM- Car with blaring radio passes house.

7:22 AM- Motorcycle passes triggering car alarms on street.

8:05 AM- Neighbors barking dog starts up and continues for 20 minutes.

10:30am- LaGuardia Airport takeoffs start over Maspeth. Lasts for 2 hours

11:10am- Another Motorcycle sets off car alarms

12:50pm- Two boys ride up and down street on motorboards.

2:25pm- Car without muffler races down block.

4:10pm- Rush hour traffic starts through neighborhood.

5:30pm- Cars back up when doubleparked car blocks street... horns blaring.

7:40pm- Jets resume... now on approach pattern to LaGuardia.

11:50pm- 2 loud Motorcycles set off car alarms on block.

Here we go again.