Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague

Lisa Goines, RN; Louis Hagler, MD

Disclosures

South Med J. 2007;100(3):287-294. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Noise is defined as unwanted sound. Environmental noise consists of all the unwanted sounds in our communities except that which originates in the workplace. Environmental noise pollution, a form of air pollution, is a threat to health and well-being. It is more severe and widespread than ever before, and it will continue to increase in magnitude and severity because of population growth, urbanization, and the associated growth in the use of increasingly powerful, varied, and highly mobile sources of noise. It will also continue to grow because of sustained growth in highway, rail, and air traffic, which remain major sources of environmental noise. The potential health effects of noise pollution are numerous, pervasive, persistent, and medically and socially significant. Noise produces direct and cumulative adverse effects that impair health and that degrade residential, social, working, and learning environments with corresponding real (economic) and intangible (well-being) losses. It interferes with sleep, concentration, communication, and recreation. The aim of enlightened governmental controls should be to protect citizens from the adverse effects of airborne pollution, including those produced by noise. People have the right to choose the nature of their acoustical environment; it should not be imposed by others.

Throughout recorded history, mankind has been plagued by a variety of both natural and man-made ills. In the 21st Century, we are experiencing the manmade plague of environmental noise from which there is virtually no escape, no matter where we are - in our homes and yards, on our streets, in our cars, at theaters, restaurants, parks, arenas, and in other public places. Despite attempts to regulate it, noise pollution has become an unfortunate fact of life worldwide. In a way that is analogous to second-hand smoke, second-hand noise is an unwanted airborne pollutant produced by others; it is imposed on us without our consent, often against our wills, and at times, places, and volumes over which we have no control.

There is growing evidence that noise pollution is not merely an annoyance; like other forms of pollution, it has wide-ranging adverse health, social, and economic effects.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11] A recent search (September 2006) of the National Library of Medicine database for adverse health effects of noise revealed over 5000 citations, many of recent vintage. As the population grows and as sources of noise become more numerous and more powerful, there is increasing exposure to noise pollution, which has profound public health implications. Noise, even at levels that are not harmful to hearing, is perceived subconsciously as a danger signal, even during sleep.[2] The body reacts to noise with a fight or flight response, with resultant nervous, hormonal, and vascular changes that have far reaching consequences.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11] Despite the fact that much has been written about the health effects of noise, it seems that much of the following information is not appreciated by the medical community and even less so by the general public.[7] In 1990, a National Institute of Health (NIH) panel concluded that high visibility media campaigns are needed to develop public awareness of the effects of noise on hearing and the means of self protection. In addition to informing the public, these programs should target primary healthcare physicians and educators who deal with young people.[7] To these recommendations, we would add the need to inform about all the other adverse effects of noise.

Thus, the purpose of this review is to summarize what is known of these adverse health effects and to encourage physicians, nurses, and other health professionals to join with groups around the country that are trying to restore the Constitutionally guaranteed right of domestic tranquility. Noise Free America and the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are two such organizations. There are numerous Internet sites that contain relevant information about noise and the ongoing efforts to restore quiet in communities across the United States. The interested reader should consult Noise Off (www.NoiseOFF.org), The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (www.nonoise.org), Noise Free America (www.noisefree.org), or the League for the Hard of Hearing (www.lhh.org/noise) for additional information about this subject.

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