Natural Life Magazine

Guide to Noise Pollution

Stop That Noise!
A Guide to Noise Pollution

By Wendy Priesnitz

Think about the variety of sounds you hear each day and the emotions they can stir up. Some are positive, like the gurgle of a fresh pot of coffee greeting you in the morning or the ring of the doorbell when you are expecting an important package. Some make you cringe, like the screech of car tires narrowly avoiding a crash or the scream of an ambulance.

However, sounds – especially loud ones – can affect much more than our emotions. From the zoom of the daily traffic and the roar of our neighbor’s lawnmower to the boom of our favorite music (especially through headphones) and the thunder of the jet overhead, noise – loud noise – is everywhere. And we need to turn it down because it’s affecting our physical and mental health.

“Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.” ~William H. Stewart, former U.S. Surgeon General

Millions of us suffer from some degree of hearing loss, which can be induced by prolonged and regular exposure to loud noise. If you cut the grass or go to rock concerts and don’t wear hearing protection, or if you work in a noisy workplace, you’re at risk. In fact, noise-induced hearing loss is one of the fastest growing disabilities.

Researchers have found that hearing loss is directly related to a variety of health and emotional issues including high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, respiratory ailments, negative effects on fetal development, anxiety, irritability, antisocial behavior, and learning difficulties.

One study even found that people were less willing to help someone who had “accidentally” dropped some books when a lawn mower was running nearby than when the scene was quiet, even when the person needing help was fitted with a cast that simulated a broken arm.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by a one-time exposure to a loud noise as well as by repeated exposure to sounds at various loudness levels over an extended period of time. The loudness of sound is measured in units called decibels. For example, usual conversation is approximately sixty decibels, the humming of a refrigerator can be forty decibels, and city traffic noise can be eighty decibels.

Hearing loss is painless, which is probably why we don’t know it’s happening. However, the causes of hearing loss are often far from painless. The discomfort level for sound is around one hundred and twenty decibels, which can be experienced while riding on a snowmobile or in a tractor without a cab. A car stereo system can be as loud as one hundred and forty decibels, as can the sound of a motorcycle, firecrackers, and small arms fire. Standing twenty meters from a jet aircraft during takeoff will expose your ears to at least one hundred and thirty decibels of noise. Any noise over seventy-five decibels is generally thought to cause hearing damage.

Other dangerous noise producers are gas-powered weed trimmers and chain saws (one hundred decibels), rock concerts (often as high as one hundred and twenty decibels, depending  upon where you sit), and home lawnmowers (between ninety-five and one hundred decibels).

Workplaces can also be dangerously loud. In fact, industrial noise exposure is one of the ten leading compensated workplace injuries. A die forging hammer and a pneumatic drill can both rank at over one hundred decibels and a semi-trailer at twenty meters will produce at least ninety decibels of noise.

Students and Teens at Risk

Hearing loss often begins in childhood. Studies have shown that teenagers and young adults may be aging their ears at between three to ten times the usual rate by exposing them to dangerously high levels of noise or music.

Young people are exposed to loud environments on a daily basis via personal music devices, rock concerts, and even the average school cafeteria during lunch hour. Amongst teenagers, males have more ear damage on average than females and will encounter hearing problems on average some ten years earlier.

Like adults, children can be both temporarily and permanently damaged by noise. In one study, elementary school children on the side of a school facing train tracks performed poorly on a reading achievement test, while children in classrooms on the quiet side of the school performed better.

Types of Hearing Loss

There are three types of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and central deafness.

Most hearing loss is sensorineural. This means that it is caused by problems of the nervous system in the inner ear. People with sensorineural hearing loss generally do not suffer from total deafness. They may have trouble understanding the speech of others while being very sensitive to loud sounds. The person may hear clicking, ringing, or hissing noises. Sensorineural hearing loss can be a result of changes that come with age, environmental noise, and some medications, specifically Aspirin. It is usually permanent and cannot be treated.

Conductive hearing loss results from the blockage or interference of sound to the inner ear. People with conductive hearing loss often complain that their own voice sounds loud while other voices sound muffled. There may be a low level of tinnitus or ringing in the ear. Conductive hearing loss is often temporary and can be caused by ear wax in the ear canal, infection, abnormal bone growth, and excessive fluid.

Central deafness is caused by damage to the hearing centers in the brain and is rare. A person with central deafness can hear normally but has difficulty understanding. Central deafness is attributed to stroke, lengthy high fever, or a blow to the head.

Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

For most people, it is relatively simple to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Awareness of the problem is the first step. Avoid loud noises or protect your ears when exposed to loud noises. Wear ear plugs or other hearing protective devices when involved in a loud activity (special earplugs and ear muffs are available at hardware stores and sporting goods stores). For musicians, who are particularly at risk, special plugs are available. Poorly fitted ear plugs or balls of cotton provide little protection.

Avoid the use of personal stereos; they increase the noise dose because listeners turn them up to blank out background noise, thereby increasing the damage.

Be aware that your risk goes up if you are occupationally exposed to solvents or toxins or you are taking certain drugs as well.

If workplace noise is a problem, talk to your Occupational Health and Safety officer about making your work environment quieter. Remember it is an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment.

Don’t forget to protect children who are too young to protect their own hearing. Anyone who is in danger of hearing damage – especially children and young people, or those who work in noisy environments – should have a medical examination by an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, throat, head and neck, and a hearing test by an audiologist, a health professional trained to identify and measure hearing loss and to rehabilitate those with hearing impairments.

The product design community is increasingly aware of the noise generated by household appliances and other products, perhaps due to the growing popularity of smaller living spaces. Everything from dishwashers to range hood fans and garage door openers and lawnmowers can be purchased with reduced noise levels. Of course, many of those gas-guzzling and electricity-using pieces of equipment have manual alternatives, which are not only quiet but save energy too.

The cause of prevention can also be advanced by educating others in your community, and thus removing the ignorance of the problem or changing social attitudes that minimize the risk. One good time to do that is on International Noise Awareness Day, held every year at the end of April.

Grassroots activist groups are being organized at an ever-increasing rate to address the issue of noise in their own communities. Many groups have formed to lobby against specific urban noisemakers such as leaf blowers, airplanes, and trains.

Most municipalities have noise bylaws on the books, but they are often not enforced. However, some places are using innovative ways to punish – and educate – noise violators. College students in Connecticut were once forced to attend an opera performance as punishment for breaking various campus rules. One group of noise offenders in Alexandria, Louisiana were sentenced by the judge to attend a three-hour music appreciation session of their least favorite type of music: country.

Warning Signs

Do you often find yourself asking people to repeat themselves? Do you experience tinnitis, or ringing in the ears? In a busy setting, are you easily distracted by background noise and conversation? There are several warning signs to hearing loss that you should familiarize yourself with:

  • Hearing some people more clearly than others.

  • Hearing a conversation, but having difficulty understanding the words.

  • Finding telephone conversations increasingly difficult.

  • Having been told that you speak too loudly.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor and co-founder of Natural Life Magazine.


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