Noise Pollution Hard On Heart As Well As Ears

Originally published on May 14, 2011 6:29 pm

According to a recent study, noise pollution could be costing lives. A World Health Organization report finds Western Europeans lose years to death or disability from excessive sound. Though European countries have taken steps to turn the volume down, the U.S. backed off the effort decades ago.

Across an estimated population of 340 million people, at least 1 million years of healthy living are lost each year due to noise pollution in Western Europe, WHO researcher Rokho Kim says.

A Dangerous Response To Noise

A few too many sleepless nights can add up to heart disease, higher blood pressure and a host of stress-related health issues. But, Kim says, it's not the lost sleep so much as the human body's reaction to noise that's dangerous.

"For example, when someone is sleeping and the sound level increases, even though the person is not aware, not conscious, the heart rate is increasing and the blood pressure is increasing," he says.

Kim speculates that these reactions are probably leftover from our prehistoric period, when humans always had to be prepared — even while asleep. Those same reactions that may have kept us safe could be hurting us today.

"If that's continued for life, clearly there is a burden on the cardiovascular system and central nervous system," Kim says.

Turning Down The Volume

Countries in Europe aggressively regulate noise, he points out. In the Netherlands, some roads are topped with low-noise pavement. Cars have low-noise tires, and airports compensate residents for sound-proofing their houses.

The U.S., however, doesn't regulate noise on the federal level. There was a time when the EPA handled noise much like other pollutants, setting and enforcing regulations, recommending reductions and assessing the risks. That changed in 1982, when Ronald Reagan closed the Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

Reagan cited budget concerns, according to Garret Keizer, author of The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, and decided noise was better regulated by state and local officials.

"No president and Congress has seen fit to revive it," Keizer says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

WOODSY OWL: I'm Woodsy Owl, and I'm here to tell you about a dirty word: pollution.

GUY RAZ, host:

If you're of a certain age, you probably remember this public service announcement from the EPA. It's from about 1977; it's Woodsy Owl. And in this ad, he's not focusing on air quality or littering, he's talking about noise pollution.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

GIRL: Turn your radio down. That's noise pollution.

RAZ: Noise pollution; whatever happened to that? Here's producer Brent Baughman.

BRENT BAUGHMAN: If you need to talk to someone about the history of noise, Garret Keizer is your guy.

Mr. GARRET KEIZER (Author, "The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise"): I'm the author of "The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise."

BAUGHMAN: He says it's tempting to say noise began with the Big Bang.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Mr. KEIZER: Sound exists before we did and do. And some scientists even suggest the wavelengths of the Big Bang dictated the distances between the galaxies that formed later.

BAUGHMAN: But in fact, the actual Big Bang...

Mr. KEIZER: It was 50 octaves below middle A on the tonal scale, according to one estimate.

BAUGHMAN: And that's way out of the range of human hearing. So let's fast forward a bit to...

(Soundbite of music)

BAUGHMAN: ...the roaring '20s. It was after the industrial revolution things got really noisy in America.

Mr. KEIZER: In 1928, almost two out of three American families owned a car; one out of three owns a radio.

BAUGHMAN: 1934...

Mr. KEIZER: The Muzak Corporation was born.

(Soundbite of music)

BAUGHMAN: World War II was noisy, even when it ended.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: More than a million sing and dance in the streets.

BAUGHMAN: Then came the '60s.

Mr. KEIZER: Bob Dylan goes electric...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEIZER: ...and is booed at the Newport Folk Festival.

BAUGHMAN: And then 1972.

Mr. KEIZER: 1972 is the U.S. Noise Control Act.

BAUGHMAN: And later that decade, Woodsy Owl.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

WOODSY OWL: (Singing) Never be a dirty bird...

Mr. KEIZER: Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

WOODSY OWL: (Singing) Help keep America...

Dr. ROKHO KIM (Researcher, World Health Organization): Now, noise, by definition, is unwanted sound.

BAUGHMAN: Rokho Kim is a researcher with the World Health Organization, and he says the human body responds to noise like any other source of stress, even when you're not awake.

Mr. KIM: For example, when someone is sleeping and the sound level increases, even though the person is not aware, not conscious, already, heart rate is increasing, and the blood pressure is also increasing. Why? Because probably in the pre-history period, human beings had to be prepared, even though they were sleeping.

BAUGHMAN: And sure, a little elevated heart rate isn't a short term problem but...

Mr. KIM: If it is continued for life, clearly there is a burden on the cardiovascular system and on the central nervous system.

BAUGHMAN: In a study last month, the World Health Organization found Western Europeans, collectively, lose one million years of healthy living each year to noise pollution. Turns out, people near noise have higher rates of heart disease, they don't sleep as well and in children, it can cause learning and attention problems. But for the most part, Kim says governments in Western Europe regulate noise pretty aggressively.

Mr. KIM: Countries like the Netherlands. If one travels to the Netherlands, they will be amazed that...

BAUGHMAN: The Dutch top many roads with so-called low-noise pavement. You can buy low-noise tires for your car. And in many parts of Europe, if you live near an airport, the government pays extra for noise proofing in your house.

Mr. KIM: Naturally, people are suffering from noise from the aircraft.

(Soundbite of airplane)

BAUGHMAN: America, on the other hand, is bigger, more space to get away from noise but also...

Mr. KEIZER: 1982, the Reagan administration closes the U.S. Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

BAUGHMAN: The Office of Noise Abatement and Control, that was a real thing, established a decade earlier under the Noise Control Act.

Mr. KEIZER: No president or Congress since has seen fit to revive it.

BAUGHMAN: Reagan cited budget concerns in closing it, decided noise was better regulated by state and local officials. So if noise is local, how can you fight it? Garret Keizer says get to know your neighbor.

Mr. KEIZER: There are a couple of fellows who live up the road from me. They have these loud trucks. They go by, I'm not thinking who are those punk kids riding those trucks? I'm thinking there goes Adam and Tyler, my neighbors. I saw them as babies.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...America looking good.

BAUGHMAN: Brent Baughman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.