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According to the UK government, the annual social cost of urban road noise is estimated to be in the region of £7 billion-£10 billion. What’s more, a World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2011 showed that environmental noise was the second largest environmental health risk in Western Europe. So what constitutes noise pollution and what can we do about it?
What is noise pollution?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, noise pollution is defined as “noise, such as that from traffic, that upsets people where they live or work and is considered to be unhealthy for them.”
To clarify, noise pollution refers to the presence of excessive or unwanted sound that can have negative effects on human health and the environment. It occurs when the sound level exceeds a certain threshold that causes discomfort, annoyance, or physical harm to living beings or disrupts the natural balance of the ecosystem.
Sources of noise pollution can include transportation, industrial and construction activities, and recreational activities. Some common examples include loud music, traffic noise, aircraft noise and noise from construction sites.
Noise pollution can have various adverse effects on human health. Examples include hearing loss, stress, sleep disturbances and cardiovascular problems. It can also negatively impact wildlife, disrupting their communication, feeding and mating behaviour. Additionally, noise pollution can have economic impacts, such as decreased property values and reduced productivity in the workplace.
Causes of noise pollution
Noise pollution exists in various forms. These range from human activities to natural phenomena.
Some of the most common causes of noise pollution include:
- Neighbours: Noise from neighbours can be a significant cause of noise pollution in the home, particularly in high-density residential areas. Loud music, noisy parties and barking dogs are all examples of sounds that can disturb others and constitute noise pollution.
- Air traffic: Aeroplanes, helicopters and other aircraft can generate significant noise pollution. This is particularly problematic when they fly low over populated areas.
- Traffic: Noise from cars and other road vehicles is a pervasive source of noise pollution in urban areas and it can cause significant health problems to those who live near busy roads.
- Construction work: Building sites can generate a high level of noise pollution due to the use of heavy machinery, power tools and other equipment.
- Animals: Whether it’s barking dogs, chirping birds or crowing cockerels, animals can be a cause of noise pollution, especially when they occur at night.
- Nightlife: Partying and loud music can cause significant noise pollution, especially in urban areas that have a vibrant nightlife scene.
To summarise, noise pollution can arise from a wide range of sources, including natural and human activities. To reduce or prevent noise pollution, it’s necessary to identify its causes and implement effective reduction measures.
Effects of noise pollution
Noise pollution has significant effects on the environment, human health and animal behaviour.
Here are some of the most common effects:
Noise pollution can cause stress, anxiety and other psychological effects, especially when the noise is continuous, loud or unpredictable. Prolonged exposure to noise pollution can lead to irritability, sleep disturbances and decreased concentration.
The effects of noise pollution are even more pronounced when people are exposed to the noise for prolonged periods. One of the most common psychological effects of noise is stress. When people are exposed to loud or continuous noise, their bodies produce cortisol, the stress hormone. High levels of cortisol have a negative impact on health. This can lead to a range of mental and physical problems, including anxiety, depression and even heart disease.
Besides stress and anxiety, noise pollution can also disrupt sleep. Even if the noise levels aren’t high enough to wake you up, they can still cause disturbances that lead to fragmented sleep. This then can lead to sleep deprivation.
When a person has poor sleep quality, they can experience problems with their physical and mental health. They might suffer irritability and decreased concentration and have reduced performance at school or work.
In children, noise pollution can have an impact on their development. Over time, it can affect their ability to learn, concentrate and communicate. It can also lead to behavioural problems, including aggression and hyperactivity.
Noise pollution can also cause physical health problems, including hearing loss, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease and it can also interfere with communication.
Hearing loss is caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise. The noise damages the hair cells in the inner ear. The risk of hearing loss increases with the noise level and the duration of exposure. Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible and can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.
Besides hearing loss, noise pollution can also impact cardiovascular health. Being exposed to high levels of noise pollution can cause an increase in blood pressure. This, in turn, leads to cardiovascular disease. This is particularly problematic for people who are already at risk of heart disease (e.g., people with high blood pressure or diabetes).
In addition to hearing loss and cardiovascular disease, noise pollution can also interfere with communication. When noise levels are high, people may be forced to shout or strain their voices to be heard, which can lead to vocal cord problems. Those who work in noisy environments like construction sites, airports or nightclubs are most at risk.
Effects on animals
Noise pollution can disrupt animals in a variety of ways. This includes feeding, communication and mating behaviours. This leads to reduced reproductive success and declines in population. Some animals also suffer from hearing loss, stress and changes in behaviour and migration patterns.
Animals use sound for a range of purposes, including attracting mates, defending territories and locating prey. If noise pollution interferes with these channels of communication, it can have serious consequences on animal populations. For example, birds might struggle to hear mating calls, leading to a decrease in reproduction. Marine animals like whales and dolphins rely on sound to navigate, communicate and locate prey. If they are exposed to loud noise from shipping, sonar or seismic surveys, they can experience changes in behaviour, stress, hearing loss and sometimes even death.
Noise can also affect animal feeding behaviour. Animals that use sound to find their prey can find it more difficult to do so when there is noise pollution. This might mean food is more scarce and there’s more competition for resources.
Besides problems with feeding and communication, noise pollution also impacts animal migration. Animals might avoid noisy areas and thus alter their migration routes. This can have an impact on their population distribution as well as their abundance.
Noise pollution also has negative impacts on the environment. This includes changes in plant growth, soil quality and water quality. It can also affect wildlife habitats and ecosystem balance, which can lead to reduced biodiversity and ecological damage.
Changes in plant growth are one of the main effects and studies have shown that exposure to high levels of noise pollution can inhibit plant growth, reduce plant diversity and lead to changes in plant community structure. This is because noise pollution interferes with photosynthesis and nutrient uptake.
The soil quality can also be affected. Exposure to loud noise can lead to soil compaction. This reduces the amount of air and water available to plants and other organisms. In turn, this can lead to a decrease in soil fertility and nutrient availability, which can have cascading effects on the ecosystem as a whole.
If there is water, noise pollution can disrupt the natural behaviours of aquatic organisms. This can lead to changes in their feeding and mating patterns and, ultimately, cause a decrease in biodiversity and aquatic ecosystem health.
How to reduce noise pollution
Reducing noise pollution is an essential step in protecting public health and the environment.
Here are some ways to reduce noise pollution:
- Traffic management: Traffic noise is a significant source of noise pollution, especially in urban areas. To reduce traffic noise, cities can implement measures such as traffic calming, low-noise pavements and noise barriers along busy roads.
- Machinery and equipment: Noise generated by machinery and equipment can be reduced by using low-noise models, enclosing equipment in soundproof rooms and using noise-absorbing materials.
- Urban planning: Proper urban planning can help reduce noise pollution. For instance, locating residential areas away from noisy industrial zones or transportation routes and ensuring that buildings are properly insulated to block out external noise.
- Noise regulations: Governments can establish noise regulations and standards for different types of noise sources, like construction sites, airports and public events. Enforcing these regulations can help reduce noise pollution.
- Personal behaviour: Individuals can also take steps to reduce noise pollution, such as using headphones instead of playing loud music in public, avoiding loud parties and gatherings, and using low-noise lawnmowers and other equipment.
Reporting noise pollution.
There are several options for reporting noise pollution in the UK.
Here are some ways in which people can get help:
- Local council: You can report noise pollution to your local council’s environmental health department. They have the power to investigate and take action against noise pollution sources that are affecting your quality of life.
- Police: In cases where the noise is a result of anti-social behaviour, such as loud parties or disturbances, you can report it to the police.
- Civil Aviation Authority (CAA): If the noise is coming from an aircraft, you can report it to the CAA. They have the responsibility to investigate noise complaints related to aviation and take appropriate action.
- Environmental Protection UK: Environmental Protection UK is a non-profit organisation that provides advice and support on environmental issues, including noise pollution. You can contact them for guidance on how to report noise pollution and what actions you can take.
- The Noise App: There is also a free smartphone app called the Noise App, which enables you to record and report noise pollution. This app is designed to help individuals report noise pollution more easily and quickly.
What can be done?
After noise pollution has been identified and reported, the appropriate authorities can take steps to resolve the issue.
Here are some actions that can be taken:
- Investigation: The relevant authority, such as the local council’s environmental health department or the police, will investigate the reported noise pollution. They will try to identify the source of the noise and assess its impact on the affected area.
- Notification: If the investigation confirms that there is excessive noise pollution, the responsible authority will notify the offender, such as a construction site or a noisy neighbour. They will be given a warning and asked to take action to reduce the noise level.
- Legal action: If the offender fails to comply with the warning or continues to generate excessive noise pollution, the responsible authority can take legal action against them. This may involve issuing a noise abatement order, which requires the offender to take specific actions to reduce the noise level, such as installing noise barriers or reducing operating hours.
- Public awareness: Educating the public about the harmful effects of noise pollution can also help reduce its impact. This may involve raising awareness through public campaigns, school programmes and community events.
- Personal actions: Individuals can also take personal actions to reduce noise pollution, such as using earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, keeping their own noise levels down, and reporting excessive noise to the appropriate authorities.
Final thoughts on noise pollution
Noise pollution is a pervasive problem with far-reaching impacts on human health, animal welfare and the environment. From psychological effects like stress and sleep disturbances to physical health problems like hearing loss and high blood pressure, noise pollution can have serious consequences for individuals and communities.
It can also disrupt animal communication and feeding behaviours, reduce plant growth and diversity and damage ecosystems. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce noise pollution and mitigate its effects, such as improving building design, regulating noise levels from vehicles and machinery and encouraging individuals to use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. By working together to address this issue, we can create a healthier and more peaceful environment for ourselves and future generations.