Noise Pollution

Protect yourself against its negative effects

Noise Pollution

We all know about the dangers of environmental pollution—but what about noise pollution? Noise caused by construction, traffic, trains, and airplanes can negatively impact our health. Read on to find out how to offset the effects of excessive noise and reduce disturbance in your home.

We get used to a lot of different sounds. Do you still notice the noise of traffic outside your apartment window or the sound of the train when it passes through your town? Getting accustomed to regular, everyday sounds is normal. But some noises you can’t get used to: this is noise pollution.

What is noise pollution?

Noise pollution is unwanted, excessive, and disturbing noise that affects quality of life for humans and wildlife. We can be affected by noise pollution at home, at our places of work, and when outdoors.

Currently, at least 80 percent of Canadians live in urban areas, and with urbanization comes a lot of noise. A good example of noise pollution is the Windsor Hum, which has been affecting the people of Windsor, Ontario, for years (see sidebar below).

Common causes of noise pollution

Noise pollution comes from many sources:

  • industrial activities that commonly make use of very noisy machines
  • poorly planned urban development, particularly when residential and industrial areas are built side by side
  • transportation, including road traffic, air traffic, and trains
  • road and building construction
  • neighbourhood activities and events, such as loud parties
  • household noises, such as television, radio, vacuum cleaners, juicers, loud conversation

What are the physical and mental effects of noise pollution?

The World Health Organization has identified noise pollution as not only an annoyance, but also a threat to public health. Repeated exposure to noise pollution can cause cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in children, sleep disturbance (along with the physical and mental health problems associated with sleep debt), and tinnitus. Different types of noise pollution affect us in very different ways.

Cardiovascular disease

Evidence suggests the chronic stress caused by the sounds of air traffic may increase high blood pressure, while road traffic may increase risk of high blood pressure as well as heart attack. Overall, the risk appears to be higher if the exposure to the disturbing noise happens at night. The impact of air-traffic noise on risk of heart attack is not well studied, and little is known about how rail traffic may affect heart health.

Cognitive impairment in children

Reading comprehension and long-term memory may be negatively impacted in children after long-term exposure to air traffic. Interestingly, studies investigating the effect of road traffic have not found the same results.

Sleep disturbance

Fragmented sleep, caused by repeated noise disturbance in the night, may affect health by effectively removing the restorative powers of a good night’s sleep. This leads to sleep debt, which feeds physical and mental fatigue, memory impairment, irritability, and increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the perception of sound—classically a ringing, hissing, or roaring—when there is no external sound to attribute it to. Tinnitus can be a permanent condition, or it may last just a few minutes. Recurrent or permanent tinnitus can be a symptom of hearing loss and damage.

Noise pollution and wildlife

Wildlife is also affected by noise pollution; for instance, whales have been known to beach themselves after being exposed to noise from military sonar and communications equipment.

Noise pollution can also alter normal animal behaviour:

  • European robins normally sing during the day, but in areas where there is excessive noise during the day, the birds will start singing at night so as to be heard.
  • Bats, which use echolocation to find their prey, will avoid areas that are noisy.
  • Female grey frogs exposed to traffic noise have difficulty hearing the calls of males and take longer to locate mates as a result.

Reducing noise pollution

Do you live near an airport, or in the middle of a noisy city? Consider the following measures to reduce the amount of noise that is reaching you inside your home.

Sound-abatement windows

Consider installing sound-control windows, double-paned windows, and/or weatherstripping around your windows and doors. While you are unlikely to completely halt the nuisance noise from entering your home, this will certainly help.

Vegetation belts

Noise pollution is a significant problem in India, and several studies on how to mitigate the problem have come out of the country. One successful measure has been the planting of dense rows of trees and shrubs to attenuate noise. These well-planned “vegetation belts” work by acting as a buffer and can reduce noise pollution by as much as 40 to 50 percent.

Although noise pollution can significantly decrease our quality of life, there are many steps you can take to reduce the impact. Check out the sidebars for more information.

Wind farm sickness:

Is it from noise or worry?

Scientific studies conducted so far have been unable to find an association between wind turbine noise and health issues. This includes the results of a study recently released by Health Canada.

Furthermore, an Australian study has found prevalence of “wind farm sickness” to be correlated with how active the anti-wind lobby is in a given community. Specifically, the study found that complaints of wind turbine noise-induced illness were higher in communities targeted by anti-wind activists and that the vast majority (greater than 80 percent) of health complaints began only after communities near wind farms started being targeted by opponent groups.

Quiet escapes

Here are a few ways to escape and lessen the impact of noise pollution on our lives.

  • Visit a library, art gallery, or museum. These are traditionally quiet institutions, and while you’re escaping noise you can also learn a thing or two!
  • Escape to a natural area. Whether you like hiking, camping, cycling, or fishing, being out in nature is a great way to get away from the noises and pressures of everyday life.
  • Unplug. Turn off your television, radio, and other sound-emitting devices, and try to institute small periods of quiet time at home.
  • Consider taking up a new type of relaxing, quiet hobby. The options are endless, but can include meditation, yoga, woodcarving, hiking, gardening, knitting, painting, or baking. Just remember to unplug your devices—you don’t need the blare of television, radio, podcasts, or music to keep you company during these activities.
  • Be a good neighbour. If you are playing an instrument or practising with your band, do so at a reasonable time of day. When throwing parties that run late into the night, turn down the music, close your windows, and ask your guests to stay indoors.

Vegetation belts

Interested in creating a vegetation belt to reduce noise pollution? Here are some tips:

  • Plant the buffer (trees, shrubs, and other plants) as close to the source of noise as possible. This may be the very edge of your property line. Planting buffers closer to the noise than to the area to be protected has been found to be more effective.
  • Choose species that don’t mind crowding. Trees and shrubs that are close together will do a better job of buffering noise than if they are farther apart.
  • Choose plants with dense foliage; these will absorb sound better.
  • Plant a diversity of trees and shrubs (remember to try to choose native plants and trees), and choose plants that grow to various sizes. This is so you will have a “wall” of vegetation to act as a buffer from the ground up.
  • Remember to plant some conifers. Deciduous, leafy trees will lose their leaves each year, so they won’t be able to effectively act as a buffer when they are bare.

The Windsor Hum

For several years now, residents in certain parts of Windsor, Ontario, have been experiencing a noise that is popularly called the Windsor Hum. The noise is described as a pulsing, vibrating, rumbling, low-frequency hum, like a furnace, an idling diesel truck, or a charging freight train, which is heard and felt in the walls, floors, and windows of homes.

So many complaints have been lodged over the years that the federal government commissioned a study to investigate the Hum. The results of the study, released in May 2014, indicated the Windsor Hum is real and the source is likely from an industrial area called Zug Island in River Rouge, Michigan, which is located just west of Windsor.

Windsor residents are still coping with the Hum as Canadian government officials await a response from various levels of government in the US as well as a number of steel and other manufacturing companies located on the island.

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