Hearing management

Updated 28 January 2014

How noise pollution threatens your health

It's no secret that our world is getting louder. The racket is far more than just an annoyance: it's a potentially serious health threat.


By Stacey Colino for Live Right Live Well

It’s no secret that our world is getting louder. Whether it’s from construction sites, planes, traffic, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, loud video games or noisy neighbors, the racket is far more than just an annoyance: it’s a potentially serious health threat.

Sure, most people know that ongoing exposure to loud noise can lead to partial hearing loss and/or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). But many don’t realize that noise can also have less apparent but equally insidious effects on the body and mind. Research has linked noise exposure with high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, heartburn and other digestive problems, compromised immune function, and emotional upset.

“Noise not only triggers physical changes that can be damaging to the body, it also triggers the feeling of learned helplessness -- that sense that you can’t do anything about it -- and that exacerbates the psychological impact,” explains Dr. Arline Bronzaft, a professor emerita of psychology at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a member of the board of directors of the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City. Indeed, a German study found that adults who are chronically annoyed by traffic noise have increased risk of cardiovascular problems, depression, migraine and respiratory ailments.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to turn down the volume and protect your health and well-being.

1. Create peace
Reduce background noises at home by turning off the TV or radio when no one is watching or listening, and turning down the volume when someone is, suggests Wachs. Put cell phones, beepers and the like on vibrate instead of the ring function. Another "low-cost solution for families is to identify someplace in the home called a ‘stimulus shelter’ a place that is as far away as possible from uncontrollable noise sources [that can be used for] play, learning or relaxation," says Dr. Theodore D. Wachs, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University.

2. Block out unwanted noise
By sealing, caulking or weather-stripping around drafty windows and doors, you can prevent some outdoor noise from entering your home. Similarly, installing double- or triple-paned windows can help insulate your home from outside sounds. Heavy drapes, upholstery and padded carpeting can make your home quieter by absorbing noise.

3. Buy quieter appliances
Many manufacturers now make quieter household appliances such as dishwashers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and air conditioners. Alternatively, you can place vibration mounts or foam pads under appliances to absorb vibrations and sound. Also be sure to check the sound level when choosing toys for children: Many squeak toys and high-tech instruments emit sounds that are 140+ decibels. If it hurts your ears or bothers you in the store, don’t buy it. It’s probably harmful by any standard.

4. Protect your ears and your body
When using noisy equipment, such as a leaf blower or power tools, wear foam earplugs or earmuffs to protect your hearing. If noise is interfering with your ability to get a good night’s sleep, try wearing earplugs.

5. Observe quiet hours
Many communities have noise regulations that prohibit construction and other noisy activities during designated quiet hours. Apply this idea to your house by creating quiet hours at home. Set a time in the evening when everyone should tone it down, and establish an acceptable volume for first thing in the morning. Then agree to respect each other’s right to enjoy some peace and quiet. “So much of it is a matter of just being polite with respect to noise,” says Bronzaft.

Ultimately, by taking steps to turn down the volume, you’ll be protecting your health, your mind, your mood your life. After all, noise “diminishes your quality of life,” says Bronzaft. By making your environment quieter, you’ll be better able to enjoy what you’re doing without interruptions from unwanted sound effects.

Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.

(Health24, October 2010)


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Hearing Expert

Francis Slabber is a Speech & Language Therapist and Audiologist who has owned and run The Hearing Clinic in Wynberg, Cape Town for the last 17 years. Francis and her team have extensive experience in fitting and supplying hearing aids as well as assistive living devices. Francis has served as the Western Cape Chairperson for the South African Association of Audiologists for three years and has given many talks on the topic of hearing loss and amplification. The Hearing Clinic has a special interest in adult and geriatric hearing impairment, hearing aid fittings and hearing rehabilitation.

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