The Loudest Silent Threat

by Chelsea Beytas on March 27, 2014

New York City’s Times Square: a great source noise pollution (8)

If Zen was a garden, mine would be sowed with rows of decibel seeds. Once blossomed, they would mature into loud, crisp, speakers that would drain out the surrounding sound. Everyone has a guilty pleasure. For me, it’s sound; the higher, the better. With every increment rise, worries on my mind begin to shrink, until they cease to exist and I eventually enter into my own world.  Interestingly, this guilty pleasure both giveth and taketh the same object- hearing- immediately loud, following temporary (and sometimes slowly degenerative) deafness. Although it is common knowledge that standing in front of speakers at a rock concert is not the greatest for our hearing, it is the less obvious, more frequent, and chronic, noises that are lurking up as a threat to our health. This issue at large is noise pollution. It’s dangerous because at most times we are unaware of its presence for it cannot be seen, tasted, nor smelled.1 The people at risk for developing detrimental affects from noise pollution, are not just those whose occupations are in louder environments like airports, production and construction sites; it affects nearly all Americans, and of all Americans between 104million2 to 138milion3 at dangerous levels, most of whom probably don’t even know it.

One of many decibel scales. Visualizations of the amplitudes of various sources of sound (7)

One of many decibel scales. Visualizations of the amplitudes of various sources of sound (7)

What is noise? Definition guru Merriam Webster describes noise as “a loud or unpleasant sound,”4 and pollution is any byproduct that can be considered harmful.  Agreed upon sources of noise pollution include: traffic and street noise, aircrafts, production/industry, construction, and various consumer products5 (firearms/ explosives) and music. Sound is the displacement of air created by a vibration and through a medium and travels as a longitudinal wave.3We measure the loudness of sound by its amplitude, on a logarithmic scale in units of decibels (dB) (or dBA (adjusted decibels)), with a decibel of zero marking the threshold of hearing.3 This can read with a sound (level) meter- a device that measure the decibel level of the surrounding environment. Levels of noise are at or below 55dBA are considered safe.2 And to prevent hearing loss, sound should be lower than70dBA, though ill-advise, the US Occupation Safety and Health Administration has a higher limit at 90dBA per 8-hr shift (which puts workers at 25%higher risk for hearing loss)2. 

For a health concern that affects all Americans in some way, there is a shockingly low amount of information and research on the topic. There is less than a tenth amount of search results of noise pollution (11.1 million results) on Google than the other known types of pollution: air (141 million) and water (129 million). To add to the lack of awareness of noise pollution, I notice that practically all of the articles are either published by blog-like websites or universities. There are only two webpages linked to a government source on the topic: one under “air and radiation” section of the current EPA website and one that dates back to an EPA press release from 1974. Noise as a concern has been out of Congress’s agenda ever since then.2 There were over 40,000 noise complaints filed in NYC in 2012.2 And yet it seems here is no effort being looked into reducing noise levels, or effects that the noise levels have on the individual. It would be a better use of taxpayer’s dollars to go towards combating hearing loss than determining at which week should abortion be considered illegal.

So far of the dozens of health assessments conducted by the Health Impact Project (HIP) (as of 2013), none have investigated noise pollution or the health consequences caused from it2. With 87% of people in urban experiencing noise at hearing-impairing levels, and 79% of the US population living in these urban areas, this poses a grand concern, considering that this number has been perpetually rising and most likely will continue to rise.3 In NYC , 9/10 inhabitants are exposed to levels that exceed the  EPA 70dBA limit.  Over time accumulation levels of sound is growing higher because population densities will continue to rise, as number of people living in rural areas continues to fall, and number of automobiles on roads will continue to increase3. These are all going to create a louder America.

Aside from the expected “painless and seldom visible”3 noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) (sensorineural hearing loss)1,2,3, prolonged, chronic high levels of sound is shown to have negative impacts the neurovascular, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems, and even emotional and social health2,3. General rule of thumb when it comes to noise: “people tolerate noise when 1, they are causing it, 2, they feel it necessary or useful to them 3, they know where it’s coming from.”2 Noise produced outside of these parameters typically creates annoyance, which gets us agitated and fired up sometimes to the degree of inducing headaches and ulcers.2,3,6 This activates the sympathetic nervous system resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure (hypertension) and increase hormone secretion (cortisol, or adrenaline) levels, and emotional stress, with the possibility of developing atherosclerosis (from an increase in blood cholesterol levels) and other cardiovascular diseases.2 The longer one’s exposed to such noises, the longer his/her sympathetic nervous system is activated.

These physiological responses don’t just happen while one’s awake, but continue during one’s slumber2,3…which leads me to the next issue: sleep disturbance (reported when sound levels are above 10dBA)2  -which hinders emotional and physical health and performance, along with further impacts hormone regulation, circadian rhythm, and of course, exhaustion and lack of energy and focus. It is reported that one out of five EU residence suffer from some disturbance as a result of nightly noise pollution3.

Additional affects of noise pollution include lower academic and social performance, as well as a public safety hazard. Loud environments impedes on learning, and achievement.2,3 Children who are exposed to chronic levels of 70dBA on a regular basis have lower abilities to develop language and reading comprehension, and score lower on corresponding tests. For those that acquire NIHL, lack of ability to either hear or comprehend sound at their peer’s level can have an adverse toll on social life behavior, and self-esteem, creating frustration, social isolation, and eventually depression associated with the lack of having full hearing capacity.3 Noise pollution also becomes a public safety concern. Louder street environments create distracted pedestrians and vehicle operators, causing accident, injuries, and sometimes, deaths.3

The sad part it, America was actually trying to do something about loud noise levels before efforts were halted and then discarded.  Beginning in 1970s, federal attempts were made by the EPA to minimize noise pollution with the passing of the Noise Control Act (noise limits for vehicles, and equipment). Then in 1978 Congress passed the Quiet Communities Act (reduce overall noise in communities).3 But in 1981 Ronald Reagan became president. As a policy to deregulate environmental issues from government control, he eliminated the Office of Noise and Abatement and Control (ONAC).3 While the ONAC existed it worked on reducing noise emissions on air compressors, trucks, motorcycles, and waste compactors.2 After Reagan, any progress that happened ended, and no president or legislative body has returned to the issue.

Although we screwed up as a nation in the past, there is room for redemption.  Placing blame and dwelling on the past is not going to get us out of this mess. It seems reasonable to suspect with a combination of noise-canceling devices and hearing aides, everything can be peachy keen. These are impractical measure that would only mask the issue. To tackle noise pollution we first and foremost must bring awareness to this issue. Though the EPA is has not be involved since the 1970s on this issue, their underdeveloped page showed the importance of shedding light to noise pollution: “the air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise.”1 If we do not know something is going on, how can we address and solve it? We simply cannot. Next, it would make sense to acquire a baseline of noise levels throughout the day in various cities to allow us to measure and evaluate changes between current and future noise levels.2 This can be done with using sound (level) meters and other reading devices.

Furthermore, since we are regulating and taxing air and water pollutants, why not the same for sound? Money talks. Setting limits on noise emission from products, and business will reduce the noise that goes onto the streets. Such effort have already been implemented in Brazil, China, and various EU countries2-that take measures as implementing noise-retardant material to roads and automobile tires.5 To reduce received noise, there must be a change infrastructure- to essentially soundproof buildings with noise-reducing and absorptive materials is the strategy that the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is seeking the accomplish. 2 (side-note: BU boasts about having a number of buildings built to LEED standard). One of the greatest non-economical/political challenges that must be overcome to help combat noise pollution, is tackling the American societal view that an intolerance of high volumes as a sign of mental and physical weakness. In this ageist country where the unspoken belief around the idea that “if the music’s too loud, you’re too old” it will be an eventful challenge to keep noises down while loud sounds as an entertainment is still highly valued.



Footnotes/ work citied

1 “Noise Pollution.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 16 July 2012. Web. 04  Mar. 2014.

2 Hammer, Monica S., Tracy K. Swinburn, and Richard L. Neitzel. “Environmental Noise Pollution in the United States: Developing an Effective Public Health Response.”Environmental Health Perspectives 122.2 (2013): 115-19. Environmental Health Perspectives. National Institute of Health, Feb. 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. <>.

3 Nadakavukaren, Anne. Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. 7th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011. Print.


5 “Noise Pollution: Sources.” Noise Pollution: Sources. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. <>.

6  Baughman, Brent. “Noise Pollution Hard On Heart As Well As Ears.” NPR. NPR, 14 May 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2014. <>.

7 “Intensity and the Decibel Scale.” Intensity and the Decibel Scale. The Physics Classroom, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. <>.


{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: