Noise is now being described as a “toxin” by officials trying to raise awareness of the health dangers posed by constant over exposure.
Adam Swersky, a Harrow Councillor, was recently quoted in the New Statesman saying “Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.”.
Words worthy indeed of a Stephen King novel, but behind the rhetoric is a serious issue that only gets mentioned in passing unlike, say, air pollution.
Noise Changes Lives
Not many people would claim noise is a killer in the way air pollution clearly is, but study after study have shown how noise pollution can have a severe and lasting effect on our health. In fact, the latest Cirrus Research marketing campaign “Noise Changes Lives” highlights that very point.
The noise that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It sneaks unannounced into everyday life – emergency sirens, music, traffic, drilling on construction site – it is everywhere.
For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid when out and about, but even in our homes we are still bombarded by our lifestyle choices – the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, phones. They all serve to distract.
At the end of the day we all have the choice to turn off the TV, or put our phone on to silent and maybe now is the time when we should.
Health Impacts from Noise Pollution
The growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts, linking noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.
Swersky quoted one research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers. The longer the exposure, the more pronounced.
Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.
As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are also typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats. The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. If we did a similar exercise in the UK I’m sure the results would mirror the same pattern.
What Can be Done?
The decision announced by the Government to switch to electric-only cars in our not-so-distant future may have been taken for air quality reasons but it will have a marked and welcome effect on noise pollution across the country. Many years ago, I used to live very close to the M62, so much so it was impossible to sleep with my bedroom window open. The thought of a British motorway that is practically noise-less is a beguiling thought and invokes Blade Runner-esque images.
We are still some years away from that electric car utopia but even small steps along the way will be a welcome relief. In the interim, speeding up the process of replacing today’s bus fleet would help transform city centres; adding taxis and trucks would be another boon.
Vehicles are just the start, as was the 1956 Clean Air Act that heralded a new era of tackling air pollution. Swersky asks the poignant question – can we give equal weight and attention to our congested airwaves in our future?
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