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Noise Pollution: Urban Noise Hurts Ears and Health

If you are old enough to remember the 1960s, you may recall the lyrics of Petula Clark’s hit song, Downtown: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city…” Music? Blaring sirens, incessant honking, screeching of the tires, and other excessively loud sounds of busy traffic are not exactly music to our ears, are they?

Maybe the cities were not as noisy in the 1960s, or perhaps we have learned a lot in the past four decades about how harmful environmental noise is to our health and hearing. Urban noise is certainly nothing to sing about.

As a matter of fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans cite noise pollution as the biggest problem affecting their neighborhoods – even more than crime. Some 138 million people (nearly half of the entire population) are regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, it’s that serious.

Not just hearing under assault

Noise Pollution and Hearing Loss
Urban noise not friendly to ears or health

Let’s begin with the ears. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that prolonged exposure to loud noises is hazardous to our sense of hearing. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels on a regular basis, an increase of 10 million from just a few years ago.

What’s a dangerous level? Sound levels are measured in decibels (dB). A conversation carried in a normal tone of voice, not at whisper level but with no shouting involved either, is about 60 dB, which is fine. Noise becomes harmful when it exceeds 85dB; prolonged exposure to sounds over that level puts too much pressure on the cochlear hair cells, damaging or killing them. Once they are dead, these tiny hair cells don’t regenerate so the hearing loss is permanent.

Unfortunately, most urban sounds far exceed the 85 dB threshold. For example, a garbage truck registers at 100 dB, a car horn at 110dB, and an ambulance siren at 120. Combine these sounds together, and all the noises emitted on a busy downtown street are truly mind-blowing.

But the ears are not the only organs impacted by intrusive, high-pitched sound frequencies common in urban surroundings. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for 3 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease in Europe, a condition characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart and the most common cause of death in most western countries.

Arline Bronzaft, Chair of the Noise Committee on the Mayor's Committee on the Environment of New York City (certainly one of your noisier towns), reported that stress is one way our body reacts to city noise. “Should the noises continue unabated, stress reactions such as an increase in blood pressure, a change in heart rhythm, or an excessive secretion of hormones may result in actual physiological disorders,” she writes.

All this to say that there’s enough evidence demonstrating health hazards associated with urban sounds. Question is – what can we do about it?

Some peace and quiet, please

Obviously, it is unreasonable to expect that the hustle and bustle of cities will disappear any time soon – in all probability, just the opposite will happen. Still, there may be some ways to manage the noise – maybe not to silence it completely, but at least lessen its harmful impact.

Researchers studying the effect of urban noise on human health suggest that planting more trees or creating inner-city parks with a wide variety of plants, can help. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center says that greenery – especially if planted close together – can act as an effective noise buffer, reducing environmental noise levels by five to 10 decibels.

Other studies suggest that listening to soft music while walking on a noisy street is also helpful, especially if you keep the volume at a comfortable level and use noise-cancellation headsets to reduce unwanted ambient sounds from entering. The use of noise-cancelling headphones also reduces the likelihood you will turn the volume of your music up to dangerous levels. So a double win for your ears.

It is not always possible to avoid noisy environments, but try, if you can, to limit the amount of time you are exposed to loud sounds. Give your ears a break each by sitting in a quiet room. Your ears, brain, heart and other organs will benefit from these pro-active measures.

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