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Traffic Noise and Your Health

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 12 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Traffic Noise Health Pollution Decibels

It’s almost impossible to get away from traffic noise. Even in the deepest countryside, with the right prevailing wind, the hum of traffic is never far away. Most people manage to filter it out and accept it as part of the price we pay in the modern world for the freedom of being able to travel – but there is growing evidence to suggest that traffic noise could seriously damage your health.

Traffic Noise Low On The Agenda

While we’ve been busy concerning ourselves with air pollution, waste disposal, and global warming, it seems noise pollution has been largely ignored by governments, for although traffic noise is a common cause for complaint by the general public and recognised as a nuisance, it seems that we are expected to just put up with it.

However, while we’ve been putting up with things, our hearing could already have been irrevocably damaged. In 2007, when tests were done on the effects of loud traffic noise in various UK cities, levels peaked in Newcastle at a whopping 80.1 decibels of sound. This was described as being like having an alarm bell ringing constantly in your ear and at this kind of level it would certainly have a permanent detrimental effect on your health.

While other cities fared slightly better, it comes as no surprise, to learn that traffic noise has got to such a level that if you are a city-dweller, you’d be wise to protect your hearing when you leave the house.

Low-Level Traffic Noise

While it might seem logical that excessive or loud noise can affect hearing, other research findings may come as more of a surprise. For instance, Austrian scientists conducted a study looking at children who live wth a low ‘background’ level of traffic noise and found that this was just as detrimental to health as loud noise levels - even if it wasn’t enough to impair hearing.

So what other effects can traffic noise have on our health?

Health Effects Of Traffic Noise

A number of studies analysing the effects of traffic noise on our health have been carried out over the past decade or so and the links between health problems and traffic pollution are steadily growing.

Hearing Loss

If the level of traffic noise is 80 decibels or more, and you are exposed regularly, there is a risk of hearing loss. And if the noise is quieter but still insistent, some other kind of hearing condition such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is possible.

In fact it has been estimated that three percent of people suffering from tinnitus will have developed the condition from exposure to loud traffic noise.

Stress

It has been well documented that exposure to any kind of traffic noise can be stressful. In fact, one study by the World Health Organisation reported that 15 percent of people would describe themselves as suffering severe annoyance from noise.

However many of us might feel that we don’t really think about the traffic noise we experience; we’ve perhaps got used to it and may assume therefore that we’ve ‘adapted’ somehow. In actual fact, traffic noise continues to affect us whether we’re aware of it or not. This is particularly worrying, in that we don’t even notice the toll it can take on our body.

Whether the noise is constant, intermittent, loud, or quiet, it seems that any noise that impinges on us can raise our blood pressure and increase stress levels. Even while we are asleep, our body continues to respond to the noises that it hears. In chronic cases, such as with people living close to motorway or aircraft traffic, and the two percent of us whose sleep is severely disturbed by noise, the stress caused can lead to much more dangerous conditions such as heart problems, hypertension, and strokes.

Heart Conditions

The link with traffic noise and heart health is just beginning to emerge, with more studies scheduled to establish a clearer connection. So far, there is speculation that of the 100,000 deaths each year from heart failure, about 3,000 could be attributable to chronic exposure to traffic noise.

If a direct cause and effect between traffic noise and health can be proven, it will encourage noise pollution from traffic to move up the political agenda and for noise-reduction measures to be implemented.

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