by Jan L. Mayes, MSc, Aud(C), RAud, Audiologist
Environmental noise is damaging and inflicts unwanted sounds into everyday life. In 1984, Gordon Hempton, The Sound Tracker, found 20 natural locations in Washington State with noise-free intervals lasting over 15 minutes. No manmade noise at all. No planes, trains, or traffic. By 1995, only three locations were noise-free. When I employed current sound tracking in my suburban neighbourhood in the Pacific Northwest, I never had noise-free intervals last more than 4 minutes. And I tried tracking at different times of the day, every day of the week for months.
Sociocusis is high distortion hearing loss caused by loud personal environmental noise (i.e., 75 dB average or higher). The louder the noise, the faster the damage. Noise-induced hidden hearing loss starts first. It begins with permanent rips in hearing nerves for which there are no symptoms, but damage is progressive for months after noise ends. More unprotected noise exposures causes yet more nerve damage leading to temporary or permanent inner ear hearing loss and what I call “hyper ears” (tinnitus and hyperacusis). Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, comes from gradual inner ear changes over time. Sociocusis, wrongly called early presbycusis, has a much greater impact on communication and music enjoyment than presbycusis alone.
There are also physical and mental health hazards from chronic environmental noise (i.e., 55 dB – 75 dB average). Health effects include stress, insomnia, learning problems in children, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and shorter life. Blood pressure goes up with every 10 dB increase in environmental noise.
Ear protection prevents sociocusis from loud activities like nightclubs, concerts, and stadium events. Imagine if these venues were designated “Noise Hazard Zones”: no ear protection, no entry. Imagine Noise Free Zones like at Comic-Con 2017 in New York City. Imagine architects designing public spaces with quiet acoustics in the first place. Imagine if it was standard for manufacturers to make quiet products, dropping the noise hazard of everything from blenders, lawnmowers, planes, trains, and traffic.
The UK estimates noise pollution related healthcare costs at £1.09 billion annually. The EU is using urban planning and government polices to prevent environmental noise. Noise mitigation strategies include quiet asphalt, low-noise tires, traffic curfews, quieter airplanes, noise-optimized airport take-off and approach procedures, and better infrastructure planning.
But in the U.S., the FAA denies the crippling public health burden of noise pollution, and Congress hasn’t passed the Quiet Communities Act of 2016 or 2017.
Nobel Prize Winner Robert Koch predicted in 1910 that “[o]ne day man will have to fight noise as fiercely as cholera and pest.” I think the day is here.
Jan L. Mayes is an international Eric Hoffer Award winning author in Non-Fiction Health. She is also a blogger and audiologist specializing in noise, tinnitus-hyperacusis, and hearing health education. You can read more of Jan’s work at her site, www.janlmayes.com.