Why you should care
Because the noise of modern life is turning up the volume on some potentially serious health problems.
Airports are stressful. Delayed flights and long security lines can raise blood pressure. But we tend to overlook airplane noise on the list of stressors — and it may be more harmful than we realize.
While noise pollution is most commonly talked about at airports, it’s not just about the engine roar coming from jets taking off and landing. Noise exposure is everywhere — even in classrooms and hospitals. And now, two recent studies in the British Medical Journal have shed light on the deleterious effects of long-term exposure to airport-related noise — and its impact on our hearts.
Number of alarms that go off per day
One study found higher risks of hospitalization for heart disease in London neighborhoods close to Heathrow, the third-busiest airport in the world. This increased risk was linked to the constant noise exposure. The other study estimated a 3.5 percent increase in heart-disease hospitalization rate per 10-decibel increase in airport noise.
Another recent study highlights the effects of “alarm fatigue”— where hospital clinicians become desensitized to the constant beeps and alarms. At the Boston Medical Center cardiac care unit, workers are exposed, on average, to 12,000 alarms a day. Noise levels in hospitals typically exceed the WHO-recommended level by more than 15 decibels. And noise isn’t just bad for patients — it also contributes to burnout and lowered work performance for nurses and other hospital workers.
We’ve known about noise-induced hearing loss as a public health concern for a while: The beginning of the jet age in the 1960s raised aircraft noise concerns, sparking legislation such as the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the first piece of federal legislation that required airports to monitor the impact of aircraft noise before undertaking major projects. Hospitals, too, have been getting noisier since 1960 , according to a Johns Hopkins Hospital study, mostly the result of overhead pagers, loud conversations and alarms.
You don’t have to work with jackhammers to suffer from long-term exposure.
So what are public health officials doing to address an issue that affects so many of us? Noise emission labels on products are mandatory in some countries. However, the EPA has applied these labels to only a few products thus far, such as portable air compressors. Warning labels should be implemented for all products that are capable of causing hearing damage, and that especially applies to many children’s toys out today. Also, in some densely populated cities, “noise maps” are helping leaders make informed decisions about their noise policies.
Around the world, we’re seeing the effects of excessive noise reach well beyond airports, and you don’t have to work with jackhammers to suffer the consequences of long-term exposure. Living in an urban environment, spending time in a classroom or hospital, or even listening to an MP3 player at a high volume is probably enough.
Unwanted exposure to noise may be an inescapable part of modern life, but as life gets busier — and louder — we need greater public awareness of the problem and both federal and non-federal intervention to remedy it.
Sounds ironic, but it’s time we make some noise to save our hearts.