Updated: Mar 2
Noise pollution affects all of us to such an extent that we often fail to notice it. From the cars that screech by our houses to the airplanes that roar overhead, regular exposure to noise pollution harms both our health and our precious wildlife.
What is noise pollution exactly? According to National Geographic, noise pollution is considered to be “any unwanted or disturbing sound that affects the health and well-being of humans and other organisms.” These sounds include lawnmowers, construction work, vacuum cleaners, and traffic noises--sounds that we are all familiar with. Especially since we can’t see or smell it, we often overlook this form of pollution despite its dire health effects. The most common health problem it causes is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, or NIHL. NIHL can be permanent depending on the volume of the noise and the length of exposure; when prolonged, exposure to loud noises can lead to sleep disturbances, stress and stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, and even heart disease (Environmental Pollution Centers). Young children who are still growing and developing are particularly susceptible to these health effects--studies have found that children who live near noisy airports or streets suffer more from stress and developmental issues in memory, attention level, and reading skills (National Geographic). Further, the Environmental Pollution Centers found that in 2001, roughly 12.5% of American children ages 6 to 19 had hearing impairments in one or both ears.
Noise pollution harms not only humans but also terrestrial and marine animals who heavily rely on sound to navigate, find food, and survive. With the addition of unfamiliar noises, animals have been forced to adapt--certain bird species have altered their vocal calls to be heard above the excess noise, and others have begun singing at nighttime when it’s quieter. Still, others have abandoned their ecosystems to relocate to quieter places, while some have moved closer to loud areas to thwart their predators. Clearly, noise is reshaping these ecosystems by harming the diversity, the structure, and the way that remaining plants and animals survive.
A pair of birds in the city.
In the ocean, noise pollution is just as harmful, especially to animals who depend on echolocation, such as whales and dolphins. The most problematic noises come from ships, oil and gas exploration, seismic surveys, and high-frequency sonars. These noises disrupt the animals’ ability to communicate and navigate, which leads to stress, confusion, and sometimes, mass strandings. Sound blasts from sonars are particularly harmful--at 235 decibels, they are as loud as a rocket taking off and can cause physical trauma such as bleeding in the ears and brain. The sudden change in pressure from these blasts can also cause barotrauma, or air bubbles in the organs known to be excruciatingly painful. In other marine animals, like octopuses and hermit crabs, noise pollution can damage organs and nerves crucial to balance systems and responsiveness (Parris and McCauley).
Whales stranded on the beach at Hamelin Bay (The Atlantic)
Mitigating noise pollution will be difficult--we can’t simply stop driving, stop shipping, or stop ocean exploration. We can, however, install roadside noise barriers, drive less, and each do our part by being more considerate of the noises we generate. To protect ourselves, we can avoid loud places and use earplugs or earmuffs to deafen certain noises, and for the benefit of all, we can collectively take initiative, advocate, and raise public awareness.
“Noise Pollution and the Environment.” Edited by Kristen Parris and Robert McCauley, Australian Academy of Science, 19 Sept. 2019, www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/noise-pollution-and-environment.
“Noise Pollution.” National Geographic Society, 15 July 2019, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/noise-pollution/.
“Quiet Please! Fighting Noise Pollution.” Edited by Marion Burgess, Australian Academy of Science, www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/noise-pollution.
“What Is Noise Pollution?” Environmental Pollution Centers, www.environmentalpollutioncenters.org/noise-pollution/.