Unwanted noise can be irritating at the best of times, but could it also be killing us?
A World Health Organisation (WHO) study seems to think so, suggesting noise is a (not so silent) killer of one million people annually in Western Europe.
The 2011 report titled 'Burden of disease from environmental noise' gathered data from an array of epidemiological studies collected over a 10 year period in Europe.
The study reveals the link between environmental noise and various health conditions. The causes of environmental noise are most often caused by airplanes, cars, trains and other industrial (non naturally occurring) soundscapes. People who are exposed to these sounds for prolonged periods of time have higher mortality rates. The graph below highlights the number of healthy years lost due to conditions resulting from noise exposure in Western Europe.
Each health outcome caused by noise was based on exposure, distribution, and prevalence of disease. The estimated years lost included '61 000 years for ischaemic heart disease,
45 000 years due to cognitive impairment of children, 903 000 years for sleep disturbance, 22 000 years for tinnitus and 587 000 years for annoyance.'
Healthy years of life lost annually in Western Europe (2011)
They found that at least one million healthy years of life are lost each year in Europe alone due to noise pollution (and this figure does not include noise from industrial workplaces). It would be hard to predict what this loss of life due to noise looks like outside of Europe where the study took place, however, based on population density and trade, it could be predicted that millions of more lives are taken across Asia, South America, North and Central America and even in Australia every year.
The authors of the report concluded 'there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.' They also noted that while other forms of pollution may be declining, noise pollution is increasing rapidly. Traffic noise was ranked second among environmental threats to public health, following air pollution.
Australians are not immune to these figures either. As the population continues to grow and housing becomes denser, so too does peoples exposure to constant noise. This is not only a public health problem but implicates individual quality of life over many years.
WHO reports that even minor everyday noises such as air traffic is proven to increase incidences of high blood pressure. This is because constant sound keeps us on 'high alert' with stress signals being sent throughout the body whenever noise is detected. This is demonstrated in the following graph, which shows the prevalence of high blood pressure in populations that live with the sound of air traffic.
More than ever, Australians need to protect their families by ensuring they can live in areas of low noise exposure. This will ensure better nights of sleep and reduced risk of chronic illness.
As for the overall problem of increased noise pollution, the WHO has called all health stakeholders to 'work together to reduce the exposure of children to noise, including from personal electronic devices, from recreation and traffic (especially in residential areas).'
The findings in the paper are now informing the European Unions 'Health 2020' goals.