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Noise Pollution – The Not So Silent Killer

Many people are starting to agree that climate change is a serious threat that requires immediate action. Even if they are slow, measures to control climate change-related issues like global warming, sea-level rise, air pollution, etc. are being implemented. However, there is a not so silent killer that has quietly fallen under the radar – noise pollution or environmental noise.  

So, what exactly is it? It is simply any unwanted or harmful outdoor sound created by human activity like noise from road traffic, rail traffic, air traffic & industrial activity. For instance, think of your average car horn. It produces around 110 decibels (dB) worth of sound. But experts say that noise levels above 105 dB can damage hearing if endured for even more than 15 minutes a week! 

If that sounds bad, it’s because it is! Even in a developed economy like Europe, noise is the second largest environmental hazard to health, after air pollution. And this is only going to get worse because 68% of the world is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. More people, more instruments, more vehicles, more buildings, more noise!  

Since noise pollution is here to stay, we need to better understand its harmful effects. So, let’s look at the impacts of noise pollution through the three pillars of sustainable development: social, economic & environmental. Finally, we’ll end the article by exploring what is being done to minimize the impact of noise pollution. 

How it Impacts our Society 

Let’s start with us humans first and the long-term health effects of noise pollution. 2011 WHO Europe Report claimed that at least 1 million healthy years of life are lost from noise pollution alone. So, where is all of this coming from, and how is it affecting our health.

Noise pollution, particularly from road traffic (80% of noise in urban areas), causes several health problems. The most common is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). It is so common that 64% of hearing loss cases are linked to just noise pollution in cities. 

Other health impacts of noise pollution include heart disease, annoyance and sleep disturbance. In Europe alone, environmental noise contributes 48,000 new cases of heart disease and 12,000 premature deaths every year! Additionally, around 22 million people report severe annoyance, and 6.5 million people suffer from high sleep disturbance.   

Noise pollution also severely harms children. Studies have shown that children’s cognitive abilities in memory, attention level, and reading skills are adversely affected by schools located near road traffic & airport traffic.   

It’s clear that noise pollution undoubtedly affects you, me and everyone. So of course, it must impact our economy, right? Let us find out.  

How it Impacts our Economy 

If children’s cognitive abilities are being impacted by noise pollution, does noise pollution impact adults’ productivity, health and thus our economy? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Take a developed economy like the United Kingdom. In 2008, noise pollution cost them a whopping £7 billion to £10 billion! Out of which, £2 billion was incurred from loss of productivity alone, followed by £252 million from cognitive impairment in children and £1.2 million from heart disease on exposure to daytime traffic noise.  

Apart from socio-economic costs, pure economic costs of noise pollution can also impact the valuation of a property. A 2021 study in urban Nigeria found that the value of residential properties decreases by 3.1% when affected by noise pollution.   

So far, noise pollution impacts our society and our economy. Will it go 3 for 3 and impact our environment as well? 

How it Impacts our Environment 

It is a hattrick. Noise pollution causes major disruption to animals’ health and well-being. Research has shown that environmental noise threatens the existence of more than 100 species! So, how is it impacting our animals? 

Studies have shown that exposure to loud noise causes irregular heartbeats in caterpillars and lower fertility in bluebirds. Although, the biggest problem is when noise pollution messes with animals’ abilities to use sound to travel, gather food, attract mates and avoid predators. For instance, birds & bats might find it difficult to hear and locate their prey in a noisy environment. Similarly, land animals like prairie dogs find it hard to collect food, communicate with their pack and hear their predators due to traffic noise.  

Our oceans are not safe either. Noise pollution is also a growing problem for our beloved ocean mammals: whales & dolphins because they use sound and echolocation to hunt and navigate. The main culprits are not ships and oil drills but sonar devices and seismic tests. These tools use sound to locate objects within our oceans. Sounds emitted from these are typically 200-250 decibels and travel hundreds of miles at high intensity. So, why is this a problem? Well, it is because dolphins can hear 7 times better than humans, and whales can hear sounds up to 1000 miles away. This has resulted in hearing loss to dolphins, mass strandings of blue whales and changes in their feeding behaviour.  

Since noise pollution impacts all three pillars of sustainability, we need to consider it as a serious threat, which needs to be addressed. Thankfully, there are solutions out there to mitigate noise pollution. So, let us explore what they are. 

Problems Have Solutions, So What Are They? 

Societal & Economic Solutions   

Awareness coupled with action 

Few studies have found that a lack of awareness about the impact of noise pollution is an obstacle to reducing noise pollution. However, research also suggests that mere awareness is not enough because people still fail to adopt and implement noise mitigation strategies. Hence, not only should education institutions create awareness about noise pollution they must also provide the necessary resources to implement noise mitigation measures.  

Mapping the ‘states’ of noise

Noise maps are a useful tool for visual representations of noise levels in any given area. They are used to determine noise exposure in certain regions. Based on these mapping results, action plans are then created to reduce noise wherever necessary and preserve noise quality where it is positive. Europe has been successful in this regard with member states required to prepare and publish noise maps and noise management action plans every 5 years.   

Building educational institutions away from highways, airports and industrial sites 

Essentially areas that could cause noise pollution. Success from this solution was witnessed with the relocation of Munich Airport. Before its relocation, high noise exposure was linked to a decline in long-term memory and reading comprehension among 10-year-old children. However, two years after the airport got relocated, these cognitive impairments no longer existed, implying that the effects of noise on cognitive performance may be reversible if the noise stops.   

Design, plan and build noiseless infrastructure

This includes setting up acoustic insulation and noise barriers near noisy areas. Research finds effective noise barriers can reduce noise levels by 10–15 dB, cutting noise pollution from traffic by half!   

Reduce speed limits + quieter transport vehicles = a simple helpful solution

study in Lausanne, Switzerland, saw a 30 km/hr partial speed limit prevented 1 cardiovascular death, 72 hospital admissions from cardiovascular disease, 1,100+ cases of high annoyance and 918 sleep disturbances from noise. The best part, when the speed limit was introduced to the whole city, the benefits more than doubled. Interestingly, quiet tyres also appear to play a role in reducing noise. Research shows that electric car tyres are 5dB quieter than automatic car tyres. The shift to electric vehicles could be more useful than we thought.   

Establish quiet areas within cities – the Shhh zones

Urbanized cities and towns can build quiet areas in the form of parks and green spaces for people to escape the city and its noise. A 2011 study in the United Kingdom found that quiet areas in major cities of England could even contribute £1.4 billion per year to the economy. The estimate was based on people’s willingness to pay for visits to such spaces for the sole purpose of experiencing ‘quiet’. 

Environmental Solutions

Reduce speed limits + quieter transport vehicles = a helpful solution here too 

Studies show that reducing speed limits or the volume of road traffic near forest areas improves the quality of life for birds. Noise no longer impacts their ability to find mates, pair bonds and breed. Additionally, quieter cars have also been suggested as a way to reduce the impact of noise pollution on animals.  

Increase natural noise barriers with all things green

Research suggests that planting noise barriers like trees and shrubs can reduce noise by 5-10 dB for every 30 meters of woodland. Another lauded idea has been the introduction of greenery barriers i.e. vegetation on solid walls. These natural sound barriers have gained traction at roadside forests and urban zoos focusing on animal protection

Reducing ship speeds reduces noise pollution

According to WWF, 10% slower ships can have as much as a 40% reduction in underwater noise pollution.   

Quieter marine equipment = quieter marine ecosystems (duh!)

In 2014, International Maritime Organization issued guidelines towards commercial shipping companies on underwater noise reduction strategies. It underlined the need for quieter propellers and onboard machinery along with operational and maintenance recommendations such as efficient hull form & cleaning.   

Establish quiet areas in the ocean

Research shows that Marine Protected Areas can reduce marine animals’ exposure to incessant ocean noise. To find out more about Marine Protected Areas and their function, check out our video below on Marine Protected Areas. 

Where do we go from here? 

Well, strategies like setting up noise barriers and acoustic insulation have proven to be effective in reducing noise pollution. However, in the long run, set-up costs are expensive. For example, installing noise screens or acoustic insulation for buildings costs on average €600. Keeping this in mind, WHO has recommended that the costs from noise pollution (i.e., monitoring, management & supervision) must be fully met by those causing it in the first place. This would include companies that are involved in manufacturing loud equipment, cars, planes & trains. 

From a policy perspective, we still have a long way to go to mitigate noise pollution. Mainly because many countries are still yet to create noise maps and action plans. Without this, noise problems cannot be properly evaluated and addressed. So, countries without it need to treat this as a priority. 

As we have discussed, noise pollution impacts all three pillars of sustainability, and it is only going to get worse with urban expansion. Therefore, there is a need for countries, especially ones facing rapid urbanization, to treat noise pollution as a serious problem. So, let us tune into addressing the issue now before it is too late to tune out. 

More reads:  

  1. 100% Renewable Energy in Transportation – Idealistic?
  2. Top 3 Challenges and Solutions for creating Marine Protected Areas
  3. Ecosystem Services – Are you Willing to Pay the Price?


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