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Noise Polluton - Its Effects and what we can do about it


Noise Pollution  - Image created with assistance from Microsoft Bing AI

 While we are on the subject of sensory overload, let’s also talk about noise. If you thought it was hard to find light free zones in modern life, wait till you find out how hard it is to find quiet places. Places where only natural sounds abound are becoming scarce in our own lifetime. 

Too much sound, persistent or the wrong sounds can be just as damaging to our health and that of other species as too much light or the wrong type of light. Below is a summary of the European Environment Agency's findings. See their full report here. 

Inforgraphic is courtesy of the European Environment Agency

There is also the risk of hearing loss. Sudden noise above 120 decibels (dB) such as emergency vehicles, a gunshot or jet engines can cause permanent hearing loss as can lower but constant noise levels. Twenty -four per cent of Americans between 20 and 69, have some degree of hearing loss and it's even higher for those aged 12 -19

How to protect ourselves from excessive noise

  1. As the above video and the US  Centre for Disease Control (CDC) tell us, if we can't avoid noisy places, we should wear protective gear such as earmuffs, noise cancelling headphones or earplugs. It is especially important when using power tools, mowers or construction equipment or going to a loud rock concert. The CDC recommends keeping earplugs handy - in your pocket, in your car or in your workshop.
  2. Turn down the volume on TVs, Radios and Music players. You can also check the Audio levels and Exposure Times on your phone and also those used by children. On the iPhone I have, this is listed under Health. I have only just discovered this feature and haven't explored it yet, but it looks like you can also measure ambient sound. Keep children away from loud noise, loud music or equipment 
  3. Have hearing tested regularly 
  4. Use quieter products. A battery electric leaf blower for example, is generally quieter than a petrol driven one. With vacuum cleaners clocking in at 70 dB, perhaps it's time our appliances also carried noise ratings just as they now do for energy use.
  5. Within the home, wall insulation, the use of sound dampening materials such as cork, rubber or carpet on floors and double glazing or heavy drapes on windows, will all help to minimise unwanted sound. 
  6. Hedges, dense shrubs or baffles between you and a regular source of noise such as a highway or a railway line can also help to absorb or deflect sound. 
  7. According to Healthline, rock concerts come in at around 110 dB, sporting events, nightclubs and video arcades are also likely to come in above 85 dB, the threshold where hearing loss starts to occur. The Hearing Health Foundation fears that there is already an epidemic of hearing loss among  young people and has a special message for them in the video at the end of this section. Note the importance of hearing breaks even if listening at home.
  8. Occupational exposure is another high risk category. Constant exposure to even lower levels of noise can also contribute to hearing loss. The Australian Health and Safety Code of Practice outlines the responsibilities of employers and some ways in which impacts can be reduced. 

Government Responses

In Australia, the Federal Environmental Protection Act sets allowable noise limits for everything from air conditioners to industrial and construction sites, and how loud night time entertainment can be. They are enforced through a variety of state and local laws and occupational health and safety regulations. However, monitoring and prosecutions are rare unless complaints are made. It’s a good idea to get to know which laws exist in your community and whom to contact if you have a noise problem.

Our local council bylaws for instance, forbid the use of mowers and power tools between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays and they may not be used until till 9 a.m. on Saturdays and 10 a.m. on Sundays. Drivers who rev their cars unnecessarily are likely to receive fines and demerits on their licence and those who have noisy exhausts not only attract traffic fines, but may be taken off the road by police until remedial work has been carried out. Reduced speed limits on residential streets and traffic calming measures such as roundabouts, are doing much to quieten neighbourhoods. I also notice that many more residential areas are excluding through traffic. 

The European Environment Agency which regards noise as " the second biggest environmental health threat after air pollution," recently issued a new Directive about noise as part of it's  Zero Pollution by 2030 Plan. Having identified transport as a major contributor, it has set out a number of recommendations. These include:
  • Legislating the use of quieter tyres, low noise road surfaces and lower speed limits. Wider uptake of EVs should also greatly reduce traffic noise.
  • For railways, it is mandating the use of quieter and smoother rails, quieter wagons, use of low noise tracks near residential areas and improved maintenance. 
  • With respect to aircraft noise, the use of quieter planes is being encouraged along with quieter take - off and landing procedures. "Noiseless by design" technologies and products are also being encouraged through the use of various incentives.
New York has taken a different approach by having Citizen Scientists regularly report on noise levels in their area. This provides baselines to indicate if levels are increasing or decreasing, which areas need more attention and whether action taken has had any effect. The video below explains this more fully. Note also other mitigation measures such as putting rubber tyres on subway trains and using directional sound output on emergency vehicles so that they only alert other road users, not the whole neighbourhood.

The Noise Project is also run by volunteers and funded by the US Science Foundation. It operates in marginalised communities in the USA gathering data on noise, establishing quiet spaces and educating the public about the problem of noise pollution. It conducts surveys and produces flyers and educational materials. Although this currently operates only in the USA, it is a model which could easily be adapted by other communities around the world.

Noise and Nature

Unsurprisingly, noise is also bad for wildlife. While society has known about the effects of noise on humans for some time, the impact on wildlife and wild places is only now beginning to emerge. The New Yorker has an excellent video on this. A 2017 study by researchers at Colorado State University found that noise pollution from roads, air traffic, logging, mining and settlements – affected the the whole country including designated wilderness and protected areas.

Noise has been shown to mask, inhibit or alter the mating sounds of birds for instance, or prey animals which rely on their acute hearing to evade predators, may not notice them if there is extraneous noise. Other creatures such as crickets and frogs  -which are hypersensitive to noise, are especially vulnerable. See  this Wiki  article or the Noise Monitoring Service for more. The Biomed Journal has a more scholarly version.

Marine Noise Pollution

The impact on the underwater world is also only just being recognised with Greenpeace currently running a campaign to prevent underwater seismic blasting for offshore gas wells off the coast of Western Australia. Noise from shipping, fishing, military activity, pile driving for oil platforms and wind turbines,  all contribute, drowning out the natural signals on which many marine creatures rely.

It is thought that recent mass whale strandings have a great deal to do with an increase in underwater noise. For a video on how it specifically affects whales and dolphins, click here.

Among the remedies to counter marine noise pollution, we see the usual strategies - better, quieter propeller design, slower speeds and the creation of protected Marine areas where fishing will be limited, deep sea mining will subject to strong environmental regulation and pollution will be strictly controlled. The Historic High Seas Treaty agreed to in March this year, promises to put 30% of the ocean into protected areas. Currently only 1.5% is protected.

Quiet Places

As far as terrestrial creatures go, the Quiet Parks Movement is taking off just as Dark Sky Zones are and they often overlap.They grew out of the concern expressed by Gordon Hempton in his book "One Square Inch of Silence"  A musician and conservationist, he began recording nature sounds in the Ho Rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park in 2005. You can listen to his story below and read more here.

Now there are Quiet Parks in many countries. There are several types of public quiet place awards including the following.

  • Wilderness Quiet Parks
  • Urban Quiet Parks - Stockholm has a large number of these
  • Quiet Conservation Areas 
  • Quiet Trails and coming soon....
  • Quiet Marine Parks - this means no motor boats and only limited fishing
  • Quiet Private places such as accommodation providers may also apply for certification.

Check the map here to see if there are any near you. [If the map doesn't open, try Google or Microsoft Edge]. Contact Quiet Parks International if you would like to nominate a place or would like help in creating or managing them. For more places to find beauty and stillness see the Lonely Planet Article "Best places in the world to find silence" or Angela Nelson's "10 Quietest Places on Earth."  Cirrus Research (UK) also has a Top 10 along with a list of the world's quietest cities. Don't despair if you can't make it to the far side of the world, there are also virtual quiet experiences which you can enjoy at home.

You could also restore your spirits and revitalise your senses with the ancient Japanese Art of Forest Bathing. Shinrin – Yoku washes away stress and heals with silence, subtle scents and the oils exuded by aromatic plants. Click here for a list of destinations in Japan.

To finish this topic listen also to Sound Recordist, Bernie Krause talking about what extinction sounds like here.