Are you tired of all the noise from dawn until dark—dogs barking, construction projects, traffic in the big city, people on the subway blasting music, horns honking even in a small, quiet town?
No, you’re not getting old and crotchety, at least not about noise. Noise pollution, as experts now call it, is the new second-hand smoke, a problem that’s not just annoying but harmful to our health.
Noise pollution can spell bad news, especially on top of hearing loss that can occur with aging. “The average person 65 and over loses 1% of their hearing a year,” says Darius Kohan MD, director of otology/neurotology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Manhattan Eye Ear and Throat Hospital, New York.
It adds up, so at age 75, you may have lost 10% of your hearing, he says. “We lose high frequencies and consonants first,” he says. Men seem to lose a bit more than women do, he notices.
But noise pollution doesn’t just make you say “Whaddit you say?” at dinner parties. Long-term exposure to a common noise source like traffic has been linked to increased cardiovascular risk factors such as higher triglycerides and to an increased risk for getting diabetes.
If you don’t hear well, you also begin to withdraw, Kohan finds. And that’s not good for social, psychological, or brain health.
So How Loud is Too Loud?
For perspective, group conversation registers in at about 70 decibels, as does a vacuum cleaner and alarm clock. A whisper is about 30, moderate rainfall is 40.
Exposure to 80 decibels and above is bad news, Kohan says, and ”you start to have issues with hearing.” To put that in perspective, 80 decibels is the noise level from a freight train, he says. Construction, on average, emits 100. Blaring music in a nightclub can reach 110 and a jet taking off is 130.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, sounds at 85 decibels can lead to hearing loss if you listen for more than 8 hours at a time. As decibel levels climb, the ”safe” listening time plummets.
What’s Being Done?
Across the country, efforts are underway to quell the noise. But there’s no universal way communities handle noise or their noise ordinances, according to research by the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.
One of the most ambitious projects to remedy noise pollution is in New York City, where a team of scientists from NYU, working with colleagues at Ohio State University, have launched a research initiative to understand and address noise pollution. Called Sounds of New York City (SONYC), it’s funded by a $4.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and city health and environmental agencies.
The project involves large-scale noise monitoring and machine learning technology, analysis of big data and citizen science reporting to help mitigate the noise. “In terms of the citizen scientists, what we are asking people to help us do is identify particular sounds relevant to New York City,” says Graham Dove, PhD, a researcher with the project. Volunteers identify and label sources of sounds from audio recordings taken from data that sensors around the city have gathered.
Ultimately, the project leaders will use all the data to help city decision-makers quiet things down. To learn more and become a citizen scientist, see Sounds of New York City.
What Can You Do?
As experts work on ways to tone down our environment, preserving your own hearing often comes down to common sense, Kohan says. His tips:
- Control the environment as much as you can. If you’re at a concert, ”don’t sit by the speaker.” Consider ear plugs. He prefers the noise-attenuating ear molds made by audiology experts, but they’re not cheap. Plan on investing about $100, he says.
- If you already have hearing loss, look into hearing aids—and then get over yourself and wear them.
- If you live in an especially noisy area, consider installing windows that cut background noise.
- Make use of apps that help you find less noisy places. For instance, SoundPrint, an app for iPhone (one for Android in the works) helps you locate quiet restaurants and other venues in numerous cities. A similar app is iHearU.
Photo: chairulfajar for Unsplash