Saturday morning, my favourite cartoons on the TV and a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal on my lap. Life didn't get much sweeter for seven-year-old me. However, this tranquil oasis would shatter with the flick of the vacuum cleaner switch as my mother left no corner of the rug unclean. This was my earliest experience with noise pollution.
A global public health concern, noise pollution is defined as harmful or annoying levels of noise, with a detrimental impact on human or animal activity.
While the disruption of my cartoon-watching was justified by the pursuit of clean carpets, there are frequent occasions where the ends do not justify the noise. A TV show disrupted is a minor inconvenience but there are situations where the level of noise pollution disrupts lives and ruins health.
This growing public health concern is linked to a range of problems, from hearing impairment and sleep disturbance to hypertension and heart disease. A report by the European Environmental Agency estimated that around 125 million Europeans, 40 per cent of the population, are regularly exposed to noise levels above 55 decibels. This is the point at which prolonged noise is potentially damaging to health. The EEA goes on to suggest that around 900 thousand cases of high blood pressure, hypertension and 43 thousand hospital admissions a year are because of noise pollution.
Beyond physical health complaints, a German study also found a link between noise pollution, depression and anxiety. The study published in the scientific journal PLOS One in 2016 included data for over 15,000 people and looked at a range of noise sources, from road and air traffic to noisy industry and loud neighbours.
After crunching the numbers, the research team concluded that high levels of noise doubled the risk of depression and anxiety in the general population. The World Health Organisation also acknowledged this link, suggesting that over long periods, noise pollution has a "detrimental influence on wellbeing and perceived quality of life."
As the number of cars has increased, along with other noise-producing machines, so our cities, decade on decade, have become louder. This increase in volume can be quantified in decibels and is evident in hearing loss among city residents.
An ongoing study by Mimi Hearing Technologies, a company for digital hearing tests, has resulted in the development of the World Hearing Index. This study of hearing impairment has collected data from over 200,000 participants worldwide, using an app called Mimi that allows people to conduct a medically certified hearing assessment on their smartphones.
The findings suggest that hearing impairment is strongly related to a city’s noise. People living in places with more noise pollution tend to experience more significant hearing loss. The residents of Delhi have the highest rates of hearing loss, while the residents of Vienna have the lowest. Zurich, Switzerland has the lowest levels of noise pollution, while Guangzhou, China has the highest.
Social media data is also telling and yet another way to explore how bothered people are by noise. It is cliché to say that people frequently "take to Twitter to vent their outrage". This can be outrage about many things, and noise annoyance is no exception.
Our research team at Zayed University recently began looking at a sample of the UAE's Twitter data of 8 million tweets as a way of exploring the global public health concern about noise pollution. Along with our collaborators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we developed an algorithm to identify and categorise noise complaints, pinpointing their exact location. We found all the usual categories of noise annoyance complaints being voiced in the Twitter data, from construction and traffic to noisy neighbours. The findings of this preliminary research will be published later this month in Computers in Human Behavior Reports.
Being able to see the time and location of noise annoyance complaints is essential. In future, social media could be used, along with more traditional methods, to help identify noise annoyance hotspots. Accurately identifying such problematic times and places is an excellent first step in addressing the issue.
Noise is a global public health problem that we can’t ignore. Electric cars will go some way to reduce traffic noise. Another solution is to plant more greenery. One of the many benefits of trees is their efficacy in absorbing sound. They can reduce noise in their immediate vicinity by between five and 10 decibels.
Given that we have chased silence from our cities, this is one way to invite quiet back in.
Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University