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Understanding the Effects of Noise Pollution

Noise, or unwanted sound, is one of the most common environmental exposures in the United States. In 1981, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that nearly 100 million people in the United States (about 50% of the population) had annual exposures to traffic noise that were high enough to be harmful to health.

How Does the Body Respond to Noise?

Despite the widespread prevalence of noise exposure, noise has historically been treated differently from pollutants of a chemical or radiological nature, or even air pollution. In industrial studies and community studies, noise exposure is related to raised catecholamine secretion. Epidemiological studies have provided evidence that traffic noise exposure is linked to cardiovascular diseases such as arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction and stroke. Noise is a nonspecific stressor that activates the autonomous nervous system and endocrine signaling. Noise has been shown to increase anxiety and depression.

According to the National Institutes of Health, annoyance is the most prevalent community response in a population exposed to environmental noise. Noise annoyance to second hand noise can result in interference with daily activities, feelings, thoughts, sleep or rest, and may be accompanied by negative emotional responses, such as irritability, distress, exhaustion, fear and other stress-related symptoms. Severe annoyance has been associated with reduced well-being and health, and because of the high number of people affected, annoyance contributes substantially to the burden of disease from environmental noise. It is estimated that DALYs (disability adjusted life years) from environmental noise in the Western European countries are 61,000 years for ischemic heart disease, 45,000 years for cognitive impairment for children, 903,000 for sleep disturbance, 22,000 years for tinnitus and 587,000 for annoyance solely. As you can see, noise is not benign. It has become a growing concern for city administrators and government officials.

Average Noise Level that Causes Stress

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB, and a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears. Some children’s toys produce enough sound to cause hearing loss. Vehicles with modified muffler systems will be above the 95dB volume, especially when revving the engine.

PDSD and Noise Exposure

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that results from the experience or witnessing of traumatic or life-threatening events. Anyone can get PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault, abuse, accidents, disasters and many other traumatic events. Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or harm. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about eight people out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Many of these people suffer from exaggerated startle syndrome, causing anxiety, fear or actions that appear to be extreme or irrational in response to hearing a loud sound.

Thoughts from a Neighbor

Recently, I had a discussion with a patient who was concerned with loud vehicles driving in the city limits. She wanted to know if it would cause her a hearing loss in addition to the stress it causes her. She has a dog that soils the carpet because it is afraid of the sound. She complained that the inconsiderate drivers go past countless people who are unable to cope with the sound. She worried about how the noise affects people who are ill in their home or in a nursing home or even someone suffering from a migraine headache. She postulated that loud vehicles bother people who are attempting to sleep during the day because they work the night shift. She said her entire community is exposed to excessive sound from one vehicle with a modified muffler.

My recommendation is a friendly discussion with the owner asking that person not to rev the engine while driving in the neighborhood. If the problem persists, contact the city and make a complaint about the excessive noise. Without input from community members, the city will not be aware of the extent of the problem.

Together we can work to reduce unwanted sound in our communities. Our joint focus can help educate and encourage people to be aware of and reduce the amount of noise they generate. FBN


By Karon Lynn, Au.D.


Trinity Hearing Center is located at 1330 N. Rim Dr., Suite B in Flagstaff. For more information, visit TrinityHearing.net.


Karon Lynn is a doctor of audiology with 30 years of experience working with hearing impaired individuals. Dr. Lynn may be reached at 928-522-0500 or at audio@trinityhearing.net.

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One Response to Understanding the Effects of Noise Pollution

  1. Jonathan Stokes August 3, 2020 at 3:47 AM #

    You have made some great points Karon! Noise also has a severe impact on the cardiovascular health! Sustained exposure to noise can lead to spike in heart rate and increased peripheral vascular resistance.

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