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The problem with our noisy planet

Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a ‘fight or run’ reaction.


Noise is a belittled threat that disrupts the functioning of people, animals, even plants. It causes stress, provokes aggression, increases the risk of heart disease. Blocking the issue of noise can bring catastrophic consequences for us.

Morning coffee. I set up my laptop in the garden. All I can hear is the morning chirping of birds. Nothing to bother me. Suddenly, the roar of a chainsaw tears into the idyllic scenery. Actually, it’s two chainsaws, which the new neighbours are using to massacre trees on the plot next door. Construction work has started. I hide in the house. Unfortunately, even with my windows shut, my ears register a muffled yet distracting roar. Noise has caught up with me here, in the countryside, the place I escaped to from the city. Is there any way to protect myself from it?

The necessary cost of progress?

Or maybe I’m just sowing needless panic? After all, noise has been accompanying us for ages and we have been dealing with it somehow. In Ancient Rome, there was a ban on riding chariots at night to prevent the rattling of wheels from waking the residents, in the Middle Ages streets were sound-proofed with hay, while today we set up noise barriers along roads and railroad tracks, and install sound-proof windows. But the noise level is increasing along with the expanding networks of motorways, railway lines and new airports; we are all experiencing noise, and it’s affecting not only the inhabitants of big cities, but also small villages like the one I live in. The most common source of undesired sounds is road traffic; research shows that that 125 million Europeans are subject to sound intensity levels exceeding 55 decibels (which is considered to be harmful). To give you something to compare that to: rustling in the woods is around 10 decibels, a whisper is 30–40 decibels, while a regular conversation is about 50 decibels. One passenger car generates sound of an intensity exceeding 65 decibels, a lorry over 70 decibels, and a plane taking off 120 decibels. In large European or American cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, the average sound intensity is 80–90 decibels. If for an extended period of time we hear noise exceeding ­85 decibels, we expose ourselves to hearing damage, balance disorder or even pain. Noise at a lower level of intensity causes us to be nervous and fatigued.

Why do most of us trivialize the issue then, saying You can live with it. It’s something you can get used to? I pose that question to Agata Stasik, a sociologist from Kozminski University in Warsaw. “Noise is one of those harmful factors that has a delayed effect on us; it’s hard to detect the negative influence of noise on our health without going through costly long-term testing. Indeed, it is easy to notice the unfavourable effect of noise on our well-being. Yet the fact that noise bothers us can be quickly put off as a sign of our oversensitivity, which has no place in a big city. For many people, noise is quite justified and viewed as a necessary cost of progress. Even more so as it usually appears as a side effect of processes like mobility or the effect of industrial activity that serves to meet commonly accepted needs. As a result, any discussion usually goes in the direction of having an only choice between pre-modern life and life in noise,” the expert explains.

1.6 million years of life in good health

Maybe it’s high time to stop drowning out the issue of noise and confront the effects it has? “Noise pollution is the second threat to public health right after air pollution,” is the conclusion of the research of the Environmental Burden of Disease Project presented by the World Health Organization (WHO). As far as eight years ago, the WHO estimated that each year we lose 1.6 million years of good health due to the noise coming from our environment. And this pertains to Europe only! Let’s add to that the calculations made by the European Environment Agency (EEA), which show that on the Old Continent, noise is responsible for 10,000 premature deaths, 43,000 hospitalizations and 900,000 cases of hypertension.­ Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, analysed the data of 356,000 British and Norwegian people. Noise considerably increased the risk of cardiovascular disease; the impact was stronger than the effects of smog, for example. Francesca Dominici from the Harvard School of Public Health came to similar conclusions when she took a good look at the data of over six million Americans (aged 65 years and older) who lived in the vicinity of 89 airports. The results of her research published in 2013 in The BMJ show that an increase in noise intensity of 10 decibels translates into an increased (on average 3.5%) number of patients with cardiovascular diseases: heart attacks, cardiac dysrhythmia or ischaemic heart disease. ­Why does that happen?

“Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a ‘fight or run’ reaction,” explains Bart Kosko, a professor of electrical engineering from the University of Southern California and the author of Noise, published in 2006. And although modern noise, such as the sound of cars on the streets, does not usually pose a threat, our body reacts to it by secreting stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, leading in turn to higher blood pressure, higher pulse rates, increased glucose levels in the blood and increased lipid metabolism; excessive lipid levels can build up in the blood vessels.

Add to that sleep disorders. “Our auditory system has a watchman function. It’s constantly monitoring our environment for threats even while we’re sleeping. […] However we are often not aware of this noise and our sleep disturbances because we are unconscious while we’re sleeping. In the past we’ve done studies on the effects of traffic noise on sleep, and research subjects would often wake up in the morning and say, ‘I had a wonderful night, I fell asleep right away, never really woke up.’ When we would then go back to the physiological signals we had recorded during the night, we would often see numerous awakenings and a severely fragmented sleep structure. These awakenings were too brief for the subjects to regain consciousness and to remember them the next morning, but they may nevertheless have a profound impact on how restful our sleep is,” noted Mathias Basner from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine during his presentation at TEDMed in 2018. He has been researching the effects of noise on sleep for years, he is also an advisor of the WHO and President of the International Commission of Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN).­ Poor quality of sleep disrupts not only circulation, but also metabolism, which increases the probability of the onset of type 2 diabetes, as confirmed by Swiss studies involving the participation of over 2500 people. The risk of the onset of depression also increases considerably, as much as 25%. Recent research conducted by the National University in Seoul showed that poor sleep may also increase the risk of infertility in men.

Be quieter in school and at work!

The sound of the school bell can hardly be heard over the whirring of power drills and rattling of hammers. The primary school in our village is going through a new phase of construction, as it needs to be expanded due to the latest educational reform and the need to provide room for Year 7 and Year 8 pupils. The operation is being performed on a live organism, during the school year. Nobody seems to have given any thought to issues like constant headaches, lack of concentration or lack of motivation for learning. It’s strange, because back in the 1970s, Arline Bronzhaft, a professor in environmental psychology, had already looked into the matter. “One of my students at Lehman College was complaining that at the elementary school his child was attending it was so loud that children were not able to study,” the researcher mentions in a recently published book by David Owen, VolumeControl:­ HearinginaDeafeningWorld. Passing next to Public School 98 in northern Manhattan was an elevated subway line. Some parents were thinking of suing the city, but Bronzhaft convinced them that they needed proof that the noise was in fact harmful to their children. She compared three years of test results of pupils who were in classrooms located right next to the line with the results of pupils who were studying in the quieter parts of the school. On average, the first group had an 11-month delay in terms of its level of knowledge when compared to the second group. Bronzhaft’s research not only ignited a heated discussion in scientific circles, but also forced city authorities to sound-proof the ceilings in the school, while special rubber pads were installed between the rails and the tracks (the solution was later introduced on all New York subway lines). The tests were repeated six years later and showed that eliminating the noise helped the pupils even out the results. The level of noise at school as well as at home has an influence on the development of children. Studies conducted at Cornell University show that children growing up in a noisy environment are significantly more often subject to development problems and have to deal with disorders like dysgraphia, are slower learners, understand less from a text they’ve read, or find it more difficult to remember new information.

Problems with concentration, nervousness, or even aggression affect adults as well, both at home and at work. The sectors that are most exposed to noise naturally include construction, mining and entertainment, but the issue also troubles people working in the increasingly more common open space offices. Based on tests conducted on urine samples, Gary Evans, a psychologist from Cornell University, determined that open space employees had an increased level of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Their motivation to work was also weaker when compared to people working in small, yet separate rooms. Vinesh Oommen from the Australian Queensland University of Technology believes that in open spaces, we are “confronted with a number of issues, such as the lack of privacy or the flood of stimuli, which in turn lead to health issues, reduced productivity and a low level of job satisfaction.” Even a regular conversation between two colleagues at adjacent desks can significantly reduce concentration.

Why doesn’t the whale sing?

Noise also has a negative effect on plants and animals. The first discoveries confirming this hypothesis were made accidentally by researchers who were measuring the level of stress hormones in whale stool samples in the Bay of Fundy on the coast of Canada. They found that the level of the hormone drastically fell in September­ 2001, after which it grew again in a few months. The scientists, who were using hydrophones (microphones to receive sounds underwater) noticed that during that time the level of noise generated by ship traffic had significantly decreased, which was the effect of the September 11 terror attacks. The researchers decided to take a closer look at the effects of noise on marine life, and the results of their research showed that it is harmful to animals, disrupting their communication, foraging and reproduction. “Visibility underwater can reach ten metres, but sound spreads over hundreds of kilometres,” explains Peter Tyack, an ecologist from The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. The main source of noise are ships, but the greatest threat is posed by the so-called impulse sources used to search for crude oil. These sources generate a seismic wave underwater, and the signal can be detected by acoustic monitors even thousands of kilometres away. As Tyack’s research shows, some animals react negatively even to the sound of a sonar. “Whales stop foraging then, leave the given area and don’t return for many days. The sound of the sonar scares them away, even if they are swimming a kilometre deeper than the source of the sound,” Tyack explains in his book, VolumeControl. Sometimes the sound causes the animal to have a panic attack and suddenly rise to the surface, where it dies from decompression sickness. Impulse sources also kill zooplankton which is food for many marine creatures. Robert McCauley from Curtin University in Perth, Australia took plankton samples before and after a seismic wave was ‘triggered’; after the wave was emitted, the abundance of plankton fell by 60% and the number of dead species doubled. Certain animals, like turtles, which react to noise by hiding in their shells, stop to seek shelter in the shells due to the increased frequency of that stimulus; as a consequence, they fall prey to predators more often.

Noise also disrupts the reproduction process in marine mammals. Researchers observing humpback whales near the Japanese island of Ogasawara noticed that in response to noise from ships, males change their mating songs or stop singing altogether. At a distance of 500 metres from the route that ships often sail on, the number of humpback whales was significantly less, while at a distance of 1.2 kilometres from the wake, whales either sing less often or not at all. The whales that stop singing don’t start again until at least half an hour has passed after the ship sailed by, according to the article published in PLOS ONE magazine.

And the robin went silent too…

Noise is also harmful to animals on land: the most common source here are roads, production plants, or logging locations near animal habitats. Yet it’s not only noise that is a threat to the animals; excessive intensity of artificial light or air pollution are also culprits here. How can we check to what degree noise specifically is harmful to them? Pondering that question was Jesse Barber from Boise State University in Idaho. In 2012, together with his team, he built a half-kilometre stretch of phantom road in Glacier National Park. Speakers mounted on the trunks of fir trees emitted traffic noise.­ Although the sounds were not deafening (an average inhabitant of a large city would find it to be a delicate hum), the effect they had was dramatic. The number of migrating birds fell by 28% during emission, while certain species completely left the area. Those who stayed suffered; the MacGillivray’s warblers did not gain weight like they should have, and they need a supply of fat to migrate successfully. Other research confirmed the observations of Barber’s team. Gareth Arnott from Queen’s University Belfast demonstrated that noise drowns out the singing of European robins. “In effect, the robins obtain incomplete information regarding the intentions of other birds and their reactions are sometimes inadequate to the situation. In certain cases, the males fight more ferociously, while in others they resign from fighting early on,” the researcher says. Noise also disrupts the functioning of bats, which use echolocation to navigate and look for food.

“Noise has a cascade effect on entire ecosystems; it disrupts the functioning of not only animals, but plants as well,” Rachel Buxton, a biologist from Colorado State University explains. Insects become more aggressive under the influence of noise; for example, beetles start to attack each other. Bumblebees pollinate plants less frequently; as a result, these plants give lower yield.

Let’s make some noise about noise

“The sounds you hear when you walk through the woods, the bustling river, tree branches swaying in the wind or the singing of birds make even us, people, feel better. They are important for our physical and emotional welfare. We should protect them,” Buxton argues. But how can we do that? In accordance with EU guidelines (based in turn on WHO recommendations), we should not be subject to noise levels that are a threat to health or quality of life: “At no point in time may exposure to noise exceed 85 dB, and the permissible level of noise in built-up areas during the day should be 60 dB (during the night – 50 dB).” Unfortunately though, things look rather bleak when it comes to implementing these guidelines. The Polish National Inspectorate of Environmental Protection evaluates “facilities that are especially damaging to the environment” and also creates “acoustic maps of areas surrounding airports and entire localities”.

The most popular solution is to install acoustic barriers along roads or railroad lines which, as many local residents complain, distort the landscape (accessing the road is also often more difficult). Solutions such as hiding traffic in tunnels are not applied due to their high cost. “The negative impact on health due to noise is not easy to observe on one’s own, making it difficult to encourage politicians and citizens to stand up and fight against it. It seems that proposing alternative solutions is key here; in many situations, noise is not inevitable, even if any change in the technologies used and change of habits could be associated with cost at the beginning,” Agata Stasik argues.

The so-called third sector, or non-governmental organizations, are introducing effective solutions. In the US, one of the more thriving organizations is The Quiet Coalition (one of its co-founders is Arline Bronzhaft), which is trying to make the authorities realize how negative the effect of noise is on health, work and education. It also supported New York City authorities in creating new regulations regarding noise limits in the city (the so-called noise code), which became the benchmark for other American cities. “While in Poland we have thriving nationwide social movements battling smog, such as Polish Smog Alert (Polski Alarm Smogowy), organizations fighting for silence are usually active on a local level, such as the Quiet Sky over Warsaw association (Ciche Niebo nad Warszawą), which challenges users of Babice Airport in the city to comply with the law. As a result of the pressure exerted by activists, city authorities have announced that they will enforce compliance with noise level standards by users of airports,” says Stasik. Yet a nationwide movement in Poland advocating silence is still lacking. Which is a shame, since as our experience with battling smog shows, it could be instrumental in increasing awareness of the issue and exerting pressure on authorities and the private sector. Such a movement would support the activities of citizen science; the idea would be to have citizens create their own noise maps using their smartphones and appropriate software (The Sounds of New York City does that, for example).

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Noise pollution has a socio-economic dimension. In her book, TheSoundscapeofModernity, Emily Thompson notes that quite often large cumbersome investments, such as production plants or airports, are located in poorer districts, because their residents do not have enough clout to protest against them. Wealthier citizens escape noise by settling in quieter and more expensive districts. “This is a pattern we can also observe in Poland,” Stasik confirms.

Let’s not forget that we can start the fight against noise with ourselves. “Very much like a carbon footprint, we all have a noise footprint, and there are things we can do to make that noise footprint smaller. For example, don’t start mowing your lawn at 7am on a Saturday morning. Your neighbours will thank you. […] Whenever you’re looking to buy a new car, air-conditioning unit, blender, you name it, make low noise a priority,” suggests Mathias Basner during his TEDMed presentation. The ‘Quiet Mark’ programme, active since 2012 and led by the UK Noise Abatement Society, has already started cooperation with over 70 key equipment manufacturers (including Electrolux, Bosch, Logitech and Samsung), ranging from home appliances to lawn mowers and computers. Agata Stasik is also urging us to change our transport habits: opt for a walk, go by bike or use public transport whenever possible.

Contrary to what we might expect, our individual actions can translate into improved social relations. Noise caused by annoying neighbours is, after all, the main reason for an increase in aggressive behaviour, or even violence. Every third person surveyed by Rockwool admitted that loud neighbours deprive us of sleep and cause nervousness and aggression. Nearly two million Brits claim that ‘loud neighbours have made their life a nightmare­’. Attempts to defuse the stress not only result in increasingly more complaints year after year, but such issues are often solved through the use of force, leading to serious bodily injuries and even the death of those participating in the dispute. So it’s probably better to turn down that music.

As Mathias Basner concludes: “Robert Koch once said that one day humanity will fight with noise like it once did with cholera or the plague. It seems that we’ve reached this point and I hope we will win this fight. And when we win, we’ll celebrate in silence.”

Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon.

Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.


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