One important benefit of quarantine: reduced noise

Noise pollution is terrible for our health, yet we don't discuss it often enough.

woman covering her ears from noise
Credit: Fotos 593 / Adobe Stock
  • Excess noise leads to elevated fatigue, stress, blood pressure elevation, and negative attitudes.
  • Increased levels of noise have been shown to negatively impact our ability to learn.
  • A new study shows that noise levels have dropped significantly during quarantine.

We live in a noisy world. Humans have made it much, much noisier.

Levels of urban noise in the United States increased by 12 percent between 1995-2006—a problem so bad that 40 percent of Americans surveyed claimed they wanted to move somewhere quieter.

City residents are accustomed to noise levels regularly being above 85 decibels (dB). Live with that for a few years and hearing loss might be in your future. Cut your skin and it heals within days. Lose your hearing and it's not coming back.

Beyond aural annoyance, excess noise has other detrimental effects on our health. Increased levels of noise cause levels of glucocorticoid enzymes in our bodies to rise by as much as 40 percent, leading to elevated fatigue and stress. Research has shown that workplace noise contributes to exhaustion, blood pressure elevation, and negative attitudes.

A 128-page World Health Organization report, "Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise," published in 2011, notes that excess noise contributes to learning problems with "reading comprehension, memory, and attention." Exposure to high levels of noise during critical years in childhood has a negative "lifelong effect on educational attainment."

Daily LEX8h over time in California, Florida, New York, and Texas.

As with much else in our nation, noise is also political.

"The two largest sources of environmental noise are transportation and industrial activity. The cars for which early noise ordinances helped clear the streets have amplified that noise to a universal, inescapable level. Industrial areas, often designated for land close to the poorest nonwhite areas in a city, are even worse."

Industrial noise ranges from 80 dB to 109 dB (for workers regularly near furnaces and excavation sites). Police sirens come in at 120 dB; police helicopters, regular features in cities like Los Angeles, churn out 85 dB of sound.

Despite the numerous social and economic problems we've endured due to the pandemic, bright spots have emerged. Pollution levels in Wuhan, Italy, Spain, and the USA dropped by as much as 30 percent following quarantine. This photo of New Delhi went viral in May after only a few months of reduced transportation. Now local officials in India are attempting to keep levels down.

The sky isn't the only region to benefit. So have our ears—and by extension, our nervous systems.

That's the consensus of a group of researchers at the University of Michigan. In a new Environmental Research Letter, published in the journal IOP Science, they write that social distancing practices have greatly reduced environmental noise. By measuring noise levels from the iPhones and Apple Watches of 5,894 participants, they observed a noticeable drop in noise exposure.

"COVID-19 social distancing measures were associated with an approximately 3 dBA reduction in personal environmental sound exposures; this represents a substantial and meaningful reduction in this harmful exposure."

Why Noise Pollution Is More Dangerous Than We Think | The Backstory | The New Yorker

Study participants live in some of the noisiest states in the nation: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. In total, the team analyzed data from 516,729 monitored days. The study began in November 2019, so by a chance of luck, the team recorded sound exposure levels before quarantine as well as after lockdowns began. Interestingly, the team noticed noise was lowest on Mondays, rising throughout the week to peak on Saturdays.

With so many moving pieces affecting the environment, noise pollution tends to get overlooked. Excess noise is another way we unnecessarily tax nature, as well as ourselves. Though mental health is declining for a number of people due to isolation, and a global Depression is predicted for 2021, we cannot let that blind us to important research emerging on real-world interventions to ease our footprint.

Humans are loud and wasteful animals. The worst wildfires in California's recorded history are ravaging vineyards, mountains, and entire towns. With another heatwave returning to California this week, these fires will likely pick up in intensity. Our current lifestyles are not sustainable, and we can only ever be as healthy as the planet we inhabit.

Noise pollution is an under-discussed problem. Increased sound exposure destroys ecosystems and wreaks havoc on our nervous systems. If anything, we can learn from these small victories for when society completely opens back up—and, hopefully, apply a lesson or two from what we've learned.

For example: say no to Amazon's drone delivery fleet, which is expected to regularly raise noise levels across the country. Some technologies are simply not worth the cost. Our hearing (and much more) depends on it.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."


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