When people talk about pollution, we typically think about air or water pollution caused by harmful chemicals but noise pollution can have just as much of an effect on your body as physical pollutants.

If you live in a particularly noisy area, such as next to a road or near a train line, it’s important to know how to keep your ears healthy and protected from long-term noise damage.

This is because noise pollution, even at a level lower than the recommended dangerous level of 85 decibels (as outlined by RNID) can have a gradual effect on your hearing health, as well as potentially contribute to other health conditions, if you’re exposed to it for a long period of time.

Key details

What causes noise pollution?

The most common cause of noise pollution comes from road traffic. Given that most homes and workplaces are situated roadside, it’s likely that you can hear traffic from wherever you are throughout the day.

Most roads don’t produce a dangerous level of noise very regularly but the level of noise your ears are exposed to will differ depending on how busy or fast the roads you live near are, as well as how close you are to the road itself.

Other causes of noise pollution include rail, air and industrial causes. These are less common for the average UK resident but can be significant for those working in industrial environments or living near airports, etc.

Unlike other pollutants, noise pollution does not create any harmful chemicals. However, it can still be harmful to the environment due to the disruption of nature it can cause, such as affecting breeding cycles.

Where has the highest levels of road and rail noise pollution?

The following tables are taken from the European Environment Agency and represent the number of residents in each area that are exposed to road and rail noise levels over 65 decibels.

Road Noise Pollution

Rank City Residents in Dangerous Level % of Inhabitants
1 Edinburgh 100,400 20.55%
2 Aberdeen 34,900 16.66%
3 Cardiff 54,200 15.10%
4 Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot 41,300 14.49%
5 Newport 18,600 12.57%
6 Belfast 72,400 12.11%
7 London 1,144,300 11.58%
8 High Wycombe Urban Area 12,300 9.53%
9 Hastings/Bexhill 12,300 9.11%
10 Manchester 218,500 8.83%

Wales is over-represented in this table, with residents in Cardiff, West Glamorgan and Newport exposed to road noise at a higher level than most areas of the country.

Rail Noise Pollution

Rank City Residents in Dangerous Level % of Inhabitants
1 London 176,400 1.79%
2 West Midlands 13,400 0.53%
3 Cardiff 11,800 3.29%
4 Glasgow 11,700 1.06%
5 Manchester 10,700 0.43%
6 Edinburgh 8,900 1.82%
7 Slough Urban Area 6,100 3.70%
8 Crawley Urban Area 5,600 2.83%
9 Tyneside 4,700 0.52%
10 Luton/Dunstable 4,400 1.62%
11 Preston 4,300 1.56%

Residents in Edinburgh, Cardiff, London and Manchester are more likely to be exposed to both road and rail traffic noise throughout the day, as these cities appear in the top 10 for both noise pollutants.

Night noise pollution

For obvious reasons, long-term exposure to harmful noise most commonly happens during the day but high levels of noise can actually be more disruptive and harmful during the night.

Environmental noise can disrupt sleep by increasing stage 1 sleep and reducing REM sleep, REM sleep is related to increased learning and production of proteins, while sleep at stages 2 and 3 is essential for resting and repairing your body. Increased stage 1 sleep means you’re unable to rest properly and may mean your body is producing more stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

The long-term effects of sleep disruption can include an increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. 

It’s believed that background noise at night is disruptive to sleep due to an evolutionary need to be aware of danger but, since modern society is now so much noisier, this is having a harmful effect on our health, rather than being useful.

Where has the most road and rail noise pollution at night?

 The following locations experience disruptive levels of noise during the night from road and rail traffic.

Road Noise Pollution

Rank City Residents in Dangerous Level % of Inhabitants
1 Newport 1,900 1.28%
2 Belfast 7,600 1.27%
3 London 117,100 1.19%
4 Bristol 4,900 0.77%
5 Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot 2,100 0.74%
6 Manchester 17,400 0.70%
7 Aberdeen 1,400 0.67%
8 Slough Urban Area 1,100 0.67%
9 Doncaster Urban Area 800 0.60%
10 West Yorkshire 9,700 0.59%

Similar to the daytime results, Newport and areas in West Glamorgan experience higher levels of road traffic noise at night. Other cities that have consistently higher levels of road noise include Manchester, London and Aberdeen.

Rail Noise Pollution

Rank City Total in Dangerous Level % of Inhabitants
1 Slough Urban Area 3,100 1.88%
2 Cardiff 3,600 1.00%
3 Newport 1,300 0.88%
4 Luton/Dunstable 2,000 0.74%
5 Nuneaton Urban Area 900 0.67%
6 Preston 1,800 0.65%
7 Edinburgh 2,700 0.55%
8 St Albans/Hatfield 700 0.50%
9 Cheltenham/Charlton Kings 500 0.43%
10 Wigan Urban Area 700 0.40%
11 Crawley Urban Area 800 0.40%

Across all four tables, some of the same cities feature at least three times, including Cardiff, Newport, Slough and Manchester.

How does noise pollution affect your health?

An increasing number of studies are discovering that noise pollution has a negative effect of your health. In addition to the damage to your hearing over a long time, some of the other key areas affected by noise are your heart and brain, highlighting how essential it is to protect your ears even if you don’t think the noise level is particularly high.

Hearing

Exposure to loud noise over a long period of time can damage and kill the hair cells in the ear that are responsible for sending signals to the brain when we hear a noise. Once these cells are dead, they don’t grow back, which is why hearing loss is often gradual but so dangerous as there is no way to recover.

Even with short-term hearing loss from a loud noise like a concert or an explosion which seems to go back to normal after a period of time, there can be long-term effects that aren’t immediately apparent.

Heart

A study from Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School analysed the data from 16,000 patients to assess the level of noise exposure around their homes and how this contributed to cardiovascular health. The study found that the rate of heart attacks is 72% higher in places with higher noise exposure and that one in 20 heart attacks in urban settings could be related to noise pollution.

Brain

A study of 2 million adults in Denmark revealed that high levels of road and rail traffic noise can contribute to a higher risk of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. The study stated that 1,216 out of 8,475 cases of dementia in Denmark in 2017 could be attributed to exposure to loud noise.

The potential relationship between noise and dementia could be due to the increased production of stress hormones and sleep disturbance, which have been linked with heart disease and inflammation that resultantly is linked to the onset of dementia.

How to protect against noise pollution

There are a number of factors that will influence how your hearing deteriorates and, for the best idea of how healthy your ears are, you may want to book a free hearing test. However, there are a couple of things you can do to protect against noise pollution and give your ears, heart and brain the best support they can get.

Day

If your home is not properly insulated, you could be losing heat as well as being exposed to noise pollution. There are a number of specifically designed acoustic insulation, such as mineral wood, but other kinds of insulation will provide some protection from noise.

Whether it’s a noisy road or building work by your home or office, try and plan your day so you spend the least amount of time near the source of the noise. This could mean positioning your home office on the quieter side of your home or taking regular breaks to a quieter part of your office through the day.

If you work in an area of high noise like a factory, use hearing protection such as earmuffs or earplugs at all times. You could also use noise-cancelling headphones and listen to music at a low level to block out disruptive levels of noise.

Night

A white or pink noise machine layers sounds over each other across the spectrum of audible noise, creating a calming sound that has been found to help people fall asleep. If you find white noise too harsh, pink noise is layered and can be softer on the ears.

You can also use items like a fan or air conditioner to create a kind of white noise that can cover some of the noise from outside while you sleep.

However, the effectiveness of white noise seems to be a personal preference and may not be effective at helping you sleep so you should try a youtube video or other free option to see how white noise affects your sleep first.

Soft ear plugs can block the noise and can be especially effective if you know your home is exposed to road, rail or air traffic at night. You can also find in-ear headphones that are comfortable for side sleepers to block out the noise which can be combined with soft white or pink noise for further protection.

Some cost-effective ways of insulating your exterior walls against noise include soft wall hangings and acoustic curtains. Thick curtains and fabric wall hangings help absorb more of the vibrations from noise outside, meaning it’s quieter in your bedroom during the night. This can be especially helpful if your bedroom is the closest to the road.

Thicker curtains can also protect against light and keep heat in, making them effective for a range of reasons.

Reducing the damage from noise pollution

Noise pollution isn’t the only environmental factor you’ll have to contend with in order to protect your health for the longest time possible but it’s vital that you keep your ears safe, particularly as you age. Having your ears tested and taking steps to reduce the impact of noise pollution during the day can keep your ears in top health and keep hearing loss at bay.

 

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