Noise Pollution: How To Measure Its Effect On Your Health
Have you ever considered that noise may be negatively affecting your health? I live in Shibuya, Tokyo and am frequently passing by construction sites preparing for the Olympics, sound trucks blaring propaganda, ad trucks pumping the latest music single, politicians on every corner talking to their constituents through a sound system, and when passing through train stations I can’t hear my audiobook even at maximum volume. It’s one of the reasons car rental companies have customers that never leave the parking lot, they are desperate for some quiet. Some people shrug it off as the price for living in a major city and ignore the nonstop cacophony, while others are more proactive, like a 71-year-old man in Tokyo who was arrested for allegedly sending threatening letters to the parents of kindergartners he claimed were too noisy.
Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) published Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European region and a significant development since the previous report is stronger evidence of cardiovascular and metabolic effects of environmental noise. Another study measured noise levels in 50 major cities and found that Guangzhou, China has the worst noise pollution. After reading these reports, and noting cities I’ve lived in and traveled through on the higher end of the noise scale, I realized that I was tolerating constant and loud disruptions instead of addressing them. By normalizing unwanted noise, I’m ignoring research that proves both acute and chronic low-level noise can be detrimental to me and my family’s health, including damaged hearing, sleep issues, raised blood pressure and stress levels, headaches, and other psychological and physiological repercussions. Noise pollution, like other pollutants, can be a source of suffering for both humans and animals. Our language shows that noise has long been considered a problem: the word noise is related to the Latin words for nausea, disgust, harm, and damage.
As I became more acquainted with noise pollution, it was startling to me that it doesn’t get more media coverage, considering an estimated 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, an epidemic that is spreading to children — “a literature review identified that, in addition to hearing loss, it was determined that noise exposure is associated with negative birth outcomes, reduced cognitive function, inability to concentrate, increased psychosocial activation, nervousness, feeling of helplessness, and increased blood pressure in children.”
Because noise has become so pervasive that we accept it as “normal,” and we don’t know its effects until it directly impacts our health, it’s up to us to actively check noise levels just like we actively check the temperature. Living in one of the most populated metropolises in the world, it’s difficult to escape urban noise. Even as I write this article, the banging metal and constant sawing from construction next door make it hard to focus and increases my anxiety. I suffer from misophonia, an affective sound-processing disorder characterized by the experience of strong negative emotions in response to everyday sounds. This is a primary reason why I started using sound level meter apps and devices — so that I am aware of the noise levels in my everyday life and how they impact me. It’s also why I spend as much time as I can in forests and parks, meditating in silence to restore my cognitive resources. Yes, I could drown out the sound by wearing noise-canceling earphones or ear protectors, but that doesn’t solve the overall issue — the world is becoming increasingly noisier. The irony is, nature sounds, water, wind, bird chatter, and bird song, help reduce stress, but by constantly wearing earphones, we are losing our ability to hear nature.
Speaking of nature, loud noises are harmful to wildlife both on land and in the sea. It causes changes to animal physiology, the ability to reproduce and their behavior. Marine animals are dying because underwater noise from cargo ships is disrupting how they communicate with each other and their ability to locate food. Wild and domestic animals are put under a great amount of stress and die because of fireworks. Songbirds have adapted by changing their songs to be heard over human-made noises, so what you hear in the city is different than in a natural area. Bernie Kraus records wild soundscapes. In recent years, he has found it almost impossible to record the sounds of nature without human-made interruptions — even in hard to reach places like the Arctic, Antarctica and the Amazon rainforest. In the 1970s, he says, it took twenty hours of recording to get fifteen minutes of usable soundscapes. Now, it takes well over 200 hours. Just as we can’t escape human-made noise, neither can animals.
Noise affects the entire earth community — animals and humans alike. Why, then, put effort into bandaids like noise-canceling headphones that only benefit a few? We should advocate for solutions that improve everyone’s health.
Recommended Sound Levels
According to Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair, The Quiet Coalition, “If you have to strain to speak or be heard in a normal conversation at the usual 3 to 4-foot social distance, the ambient noise is above 75 dBA and your hearing is at risk.”
Generally speaking, sounds at or below 70 dBA are usually considered safe. A normal conversation is 60–70 DBA and a whisper is 30 dBA. A jet taking off and fireworks shows are around 140 dBA.
Noises are more likely to damage your hearing if they are:
- 85 dBA and last a few hours;
- 100 dBA and last at least 14 minutes;
- 110 dBA and last at least 2 minutes;
- 120 dBA is the threshold of pain and hearing damage will result after a short exposure.
- less than 30 dBA in bedrooms during the night for good quality sleep;
- less than 35 dBA in classrooms to allow good teaching and learning conditions.
Keep in mind, the effects of noise on your health accumulates and adds up over a lifetime.
How To Measure Noise
I reached out to Quiet Parks International and one of its founders, Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, to learn how they measure noise to find quiet refuges.
The first step is to measure the sound and compare to the recommended sound levels to determine if your environment is quiet or loud, but for a reported sound level value to be most useful, it is necessary to specify the conditions under which the reading was taken, especially the distance from the source.
When measuring sound levels it’s important to note down the following:
- The distance between the meter and the source of the sound;
- The direction the noise source is facing, relative to the meter;
- Whether the measurement is taken outdoors (where noise can dissipate) or indoors (where noise can reverberate).
A list of apps for iOS and Android can be found on the Healthy Hearing website. These are the apps that I use for basic sound level measuring:
- SoundLevelMeter (iOS);
- SoundMeter X (iOS);
- (coming in late 2019 — Apple Watch noise monitoring);
- Sound Meter (Android).
Calibrating smartphones for noise levels is difficult because there are so many models, which is why it’s important to find an app that can take care of this for you. If you want to improve the accuracy of your smartphone sound measurement app then the CDC recommends using an external, calibrated microphone.
For more accurate measurements, consider using a sound level meter such as the Meterk Digital Sound Level Meter (range 30–130 dBA) or Protmex MS6708 (range 30–130 dBA). More information on sound level meter selection can be found at Noisenet.org.
Challenge: Measure Noise and Find Quiet
In May 2019 the Tokyo Environmental Monitoring Community Club met at Yoyogi Park to learn how to use sound level meters to measure noise.
The challenge presented to the group of adults and children was to find the quietest spot in the park, one of the largest and busiest parks in the city of 38 million people. They were given an hour to measure sound levels and related observations in at least 3 spots around the park. Afterward, we convened to share our experiences in finding the quietest spot in the park. The group agreed that we needed to go back and check the readings at different times and dates throughout the week as we were measuring on the weekend which is the busiest time in the park.
If you would like to run a challenge, download the printable worksheet here.
How To Measure Your Noise Wellness
The first step in knowing if you are experiencing negative exposure to noise is to keep a log. Once you have taken these preliminary steps, then you can make necessary adjustments.
For one week keep a log of the disruptive noises you experience and how they make you feel:
- inside and outside your house;
- inside and outside your place of work;
- during your commute.
Choose your top one or two repeatable disruptive environments and take a reading and observation when they occur.
- Download an app or purchase a recommended sound meter device;
- Record the sound level on the worksheet;
- For comparison add the WHO or other recommended noise level.
Make adjustments to reduce your exposure to the noise and repeat the steps.
How To Reduce Noise
Now that you are informed about noise pollution here are some suggestions to protect your hearing and reduce unwanted noise:
- Lower the volume on your phone, TV, stereo, etc.;
- Move away from the noise;
- Wear hearing protectors or musicians’ earplugs, which are designed to filter out loud sounds and admit quieter sounds;
- Use the 60:60 rule when listening to music through headphones. Listen for 60 minutes at 60 dBA and then take a break (remember normal speech is 60–70 dBA);
- Consider buying your child volume-limiting headphones that don’t go above 85 dBA;
- When passing by or through loud areas like train stations or construction sites, don’t turn up your music or audiobook (note to self);
- When patronizing a space such as a restaurant, use your sound level app or device and include the noise levels in your restaurant review on Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor, etc. Proof can be effective, however, be prepared for pushback because some patrons enjoy a lively experience and that means more profit;
- Plant greenery. Trees and shrubs act as a natural noise buffer. A properly designed buffer of trees and shrubs can reduce noise by about five to ten decibels — or about 50 percent as perceived by the human ear;
- Join organizations that are working to preserve quiet areas and reduce noise from lawnmowers, airplanes, etc. including Quiet Parks International and Quiet Communities;
- Join a noise activist or quiet advocate group;
- Speak to your neighborhood/city council about enforcing limits on the time of day certain activities can be performed such as construction and leaf blowers;
- Request low noise fireworks;
- Employ people with expertise in soundscapes when designing buildings and infrastructure;
- Create or visit silent sanctuaries like Calm Spaces in the Netherlands.
Sustainable Development Goals
Learning how to measure noise levels and combat noise pollution addresses the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:
# 3 — Good Health and Well-being
#4 — Quality Education
#11 — Sustainable Cities and Communities
#15 — Life on Land
Community Science / Open Maps
- Quiet Parks International
- Bruitparif Paris
- Harmonica Index — information on environmental noise in European cities
- Public Lab
- Sounds of New York City
- Teacher Toolkit by Noisy Planet
- Free classroom noise level monitors
- Dangerous Decibels classroom workshop
- Quiet Classrooms
- Noise Off — K-12 Lesson Plans
- 40-year research study of noise in open-plan classrooms
Researchers and Foundations
- American Tinnitus Association
- Hearing Health Foundation
- Hyperacusis Research — Stop Noise-Induced Pain
- Noise Pollution Clearinghouse
- The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
News and Blogs
A-weighted decibels (dBA) — A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.
Decibel (dB) — a unit used to express the intensity of a sound wave. A 10 point increase in dB level represents a 10-fold increase in noise level.
Health — a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
Well-being — a state of general contentment with life and the way things are.
Wellness — actively pursuing well-being.
This article is part of a series I’m working on to provide practical guidelines that explain how to measure the impact of environmental pollution on your health and wellness in the spaces that you spend the most time in — home, work, school and in-between.
Tara Tiger Brown is a technologist, educator, and author developing programs at the intersection of environment, education, and well-being. Tara is a certified Earth Charter Educator, certified GLOBE Teacher, and certified trainee in Forest Medicine. She has co-founded numerous educational-focused nonprofits and startups and actively participates in community science projects.