Should I worry about noise pollution?

More traffic, more construction, more drum‘n’bass-loving neighbours – society’s volume is going up. What are the impacts on our health and is there a solution?

The world is getting louder. Population growth means more traffic and construction; the onward march of technology means more bells, whistles and the rattle and hum of the server farms that keep it all running. In an environment where 46% of people say they’ll happily watch videos without headphones in a public place, even nature is struggling to keep up: city birds often sing louder, longer, or at a higher pitch than their country cousins. “The day will come,” Nobel prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch reportedly once said, “when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague”. That day might be here: the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that at least one in five Europeans are now exposed to noise levels considered harmful to their health, with that number projected to increase.

So what’s the actual issue with society’s volume going up? The perils of pneumatic drills and emergency service sirens are obvious: both operate close to the 120 decibel level that can damage hearing over very short exposures. What’s more insidious is the background noise that many of us have to learn to live with: roads, railways and even loud stereos, all of which can cause problems over time. “The EEA recently estimated that in the UK, 9.5 million people are exposed to harmful levels of road noise, 1.2 million to harmful railway noise and 1 million people to harmful aircraft noise,” says Charlotte Clark, professor of environmental epidemiology at St George’s, University of London. “In the UK, these levels are estimated to cause more than 6,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease, 1,000 premature deaths and 750,000 cases of sleep disturbance each year. These are likely to be underestimates.”

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