Of the more insidious forms of the pollution we face, noise pollution is an endemic and often overlooked form of pollution that goes uncommented upon in cities. The constant cacophony of traffic sounds, loudspeakers, airplanes, trains, industrial sounds, etc are what we take as part and parcel of what it means to be living in an urban space. Along with the good comes the bad, and what’s a little noise, we think, to make up for the sheer convenience that urban living brings us. What we often don’t realize is that noise pollution is more than just a little noise, a little inconvenience. And that it can also be quite damaging.

What is noise pollution?

According to definitions, regular exposure to elevated sound levels that may have adverse effects on living organisms, including humans, is termed as noise pollution. The World Health Organisation says that sounds below 70 dB aren’t damaging regardless of levels of exposure. But exposure to sound levels of over 85dB for more than 8 hours a day can be dangerous. If you work or live next to a busy road in a city, your exposure to noise levels is likely to be much over 85 dB on a consistent basis.

Noise pollution can cause sleep disturbances, hypertension, affect child development, and psychological dysfunctions, apart from hearing dysfunctions.

Noise pollution includes noise from traffic, ambulances, fire brigades, drilling, construction work, airport zones, airplanes overhead, loud music from proximity to performance venues or open grounds, firecrackers, television sets, music speakers, loudspeakers, trains, industrial sounds, etc.

How can noise pollution affect our health? For one, hearing loss is directly caused by noise pollution. Exposure to levels of over 140 dB for adults and 120 dB for children can cause hearing loss. Noise pollution can cause sleep disturbances, hypertension, affect child development, and psychological dysfunctions, apart from hearing dysfunctions.

Noise does affect us psychologically. Says Sumaira Abdulali, Founder, Awaaz Foundation, an NGO that works in the space of noise pollution, along with other issues, “Just like loud noises which we find pleasurable like music do elevate our mood, loud noises which we don’t like or find pleasurable can be disturbing to us mentally. Noise has been proven to affect moods, it can also cause a change in brain chemistry.”

Why don’t we take noise pollution seriously, and why do we view it as a minor inconvenience? Loudspeakers for celebrations, crackers during processions, loud music for home parties, all these are the norm in cities already make noisy by traffic, trains and airplane sounds. Says Abdulali, “It is a cultural thing. We don’t make the correlations between the impact on our health and noise, and it is not seen as socially acceptable to say we are being disturbed by the noise caused by the celebrations of others. And when we do celebrate ourselves, whether weddings, parties, religious functions, we don’t consider other people’s inconvenience too.”

Noise pollution has been proven to have a negative impact on children’s developing brains. Children are particularly susceptible to loud and constant noise pollution.

Research conducted in 1972 by the University of Oregon found that children on the lower floors of a high rise in Manhattan had more had difficulty differentiating between two similar words, such as thick and sick, than those on the upper floors which had lower noise levels. These kids on the lower floors had more difficulty in reading and the researchers found that kids who lived longer on the lower floors had lower scores than the others.

The children on the noisier floors were also worse at reading. The relationship between the kids’ scores and floor level was strongest for the kids who had lived in the building the longest. The impact of noise on learning was thus correlated way back in 1973 by these researchers who wrote, “A case is gradually emerging for the stressful impact of noise on behavior.”

Recent studies have shown that children who learn new words in quiet surroundings could grasp and repeat them accurately. A study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that higher the background noise, tougher it is for toddlers to learn new words in a language.

A study of children in the US aged between 6 and 19 showed impaired hearing caused by noise pollution. This, in turn, affects their reading abilities, attention span, memory, and problem-solving abilities. Children living in busy urban areas with constant high traffic, or near a highway or an airport were found to be particularly vulnerable. This constant exposure to noise also impacts listening and speech perception, couple with this language and attention disorders, and these can make a child struggle even more in school. Hearing loss caused by noise exposure can, in turn, affect and impact a child’s speech development too. Children do need a quieter environment to learn than adults do, and any kind of noise can affect short term memory. While kids can recover from short term exposure to noises, it is the long term continuous exposure that can be problematic.

We don’t make the correlations between the impact on our health and noise, and it is not seen as socially acceptable to say we are being disturbed by the noise caused by the celebrations of others. – Sumaira Abdulali

Says Abdulali, “Children can have their sleep disturbed due to noise pollution, and this, in turn, can impact the entire hormonal system, and the cycle of sleep they need to grow. Also, we have an absence of studies to gauge the long term impact of extended exposure to noise pollution, on, for example, blood pressure. We do need the medical fraternity to conduct long term studies to assess these correlations. ”

Abdulali feels the change needs to begin with ourselves. “Before we disturb others with noise, we must realize that we are disturbing ourselves. How much noise do we create, whether through headphones, television, music system, honking unnecessarily and more? Are we celebrating in a manner that can be damaging to hearing? For example, firecrackers that parents buy for their children. But I am sure if a parent realizes the loud firecrackers he or she bursts can damage their own children’s hearing, they might think twice before buying them.”

Constant exposure to noise also impacts listening and speech perception, couple with this language and attention disorders, and these can make a child struggle even more in school.

How can you control the amount of the noise your child is exposed to?

  • Within the home, you can check the noise levels of the television, the washing machine, the mixer grinder and try to have the child study in a room where you shut the door to mute out these sounds.
  • If your home is next to a busy road, you can add layers to absorb sound. Soundproof your windows, add an extra layer of curtains, add rugs or a carpet.
  • If your child watches on gadgets or listens to music on the phone through earpieces check the volume. If it can be heard without putting the earpiece in it is definitely too loud.
  • Choose your home away from heavy traffic as much as possible, or opt for a higher floor if you can.
  • And perhaps, more importantly, try to reduce your own sound footprint and don’t hesitate to complain to the authorities when there is sound that is unwarranted and disturbing beyond the prescribed hours. We all, adults or children, have the right to sound sleep.

Cutting down the noise from our lives is not just essential for sound sleep, but also for our health. It is high time we recognized and acted on minimizing the extraneous noise in our lives and did our bit too to cut down the noise we produce.

Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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