Health Risks

Traffic on the Upper Drumcondra Road, Dublin
Copyright Environmental Protection Agency

Over the past number of years the link between noise pollution and ill-health has become more and more prevalent. There are obvious health risks with excessive noise, like damage to hearing, but others are becoming more apparent, including increased stress levels. This can be at home or in the work place.The effect of noise affects both health and behaviour.

Premature Deaths and Sleep Disturbance

According to the European Environment Agency, environmental noise causes at least 10,000 cases of premature death in Europe each year, with almost 20 million adults suffering annoyance and a further 8 million suffering sleep disturbance.The World Health Organisation has identified noise as the second most significant environmental cause of ill health, the first being air pollution. 

Stress and sleep disturbance resulting from environmental noise contribute to cardiovascular disease. For instance, an EU report 'Noise impacts on Health' in 2015 showed that night-time noise may have more of an impact on cardiovascular health than day-time noise. Noise exposure at night is a particular problem because it disturbs sleep. In the UK, loss of healthy life due to noise exposure has been valued at €1.34 billion based on a study in which researchers evaluated how exposure to day-time noise above recommended levels affected blood pressure and associated health complications of individuals. They found a significant increase in three health problems most strongly associated with high blood pressure: heart disease, stroke and dementia.

Vulnerable individuals (including those with mental illness, shift workers and those with tinnitus) may also be at increased risk from exposure to environmental noise. Similarly, children are at an increased risk of hyperactivity where they live close to busy roads and they may also have more emotional problems, especially if they are exposed to higher levels of noise during the night (EU, 2015).

Loud Music Hearing Loss

Whilst also causing potential noise pollution, listening to loud music and the use of headphones is one of the biggest factors contributing to hearing damaging. To avoid such risks:

  • use noise-cancelling earphones or headphones – don't turn the volume up to block outside noise
  • turn the volume up just enough so you can hear music comfortably, but no higher
  • don't listen to music at more than 60% of maximum volume – some devices have settings to limit volume automatically
  • don't use earphones or headphones for more than 1 hour at a time – take a break for at least 5 minutes every hour

To protect your hearing during loud activities and events (such as at nightclubs, gigs or sports events):

  • move away from loud noise sources (such as loudspeakers)
  • aim to take a break from the noise every 15 minutes
  • allow your hearing about 18 hours to recover after exposure to repeated loud noise
  • consider wearing earplugs – you can purchase re-usable musicians' earplugs that reduce music volume but don't reduce the sound quality

The European target limit for outside night noise levels is set at an annual average of 40 decibels by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The aim of the WHO Regional Office for Europe is to assist EU states in developing legislation to limit noise thresholds. These guidelines refer to the adverse effects of exposure to noise above 40 decibels. Based on research findings, noise levels above 55 decibels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2008 German study (European Heart Journal) of more than 2,000 heart attack patients, found that those exposed to more than 60 decibels noise had an increased risk of heart attack.

The Night Noise Guidelines for Europe are available online in pdf format. The European Environment Agency (EEA) also published a set of guidelines on the health impacts on noise in November 2010, also available online in pdf format. To raise awareness of the impacts of noise, an International Noise Awareness Day is held each year, find the next one here. Information about what to do if you experience noise pollution can be found here.

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