Some scientists are claiming that noise pollution is beating air pollution in urban areas when it comes to having a detrimental effect on people’s health.
Noise is probably one of the biggest pollutants in modern cities and whilst the risks associated with high noise exposure are now known, authorities worldwide are often still slow to act.
A recent Green Week was held in Brussels as part of a Europe-wide event looking at environmental activities and policies. This year’s focus was on how the EU is helping cities to become better places to live and work.
Dr David Rojas from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain, was one of the key speakers at the event and explained how noise produces stimuli to the central nervous system, which then releases hormones that can increase the risk of hypertension. These hormones are related to many other cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, as well as being known to cause heart attacks and strokes.
Dr Rojas, an environmental health researcher, goes further and claims that noise pollution beats air pollution as a risk factor in, for example, Barcelona.
“When we have a background noise, the brain has the capacity to adapt to this noise,” he said. “And you don’t see it as an annoyance so much and you start to accept and adapt. But even if you are not conscious of the noise, this is still stimulating your organic system.”
Dr Rojas’ research gathered data on the multiplicity of pollutants encountered in cities and he hopes the findings can be used to shape policies that could help improve health in urban areas.
One example would be to improve cycling infrastructure and encourage parents to walk their children to school – not only cutting the levels of noise and air pollution in urban areas, but improving levels of physical activity, which given the startling statistic that in the UK 25% of 2-10 year olds and 33% of 11-15 year olds are overweight or obese, is no bad thing.
“There are multiple benefits of good urban design,” he added. “It’s not only air pollution or noise, it’s also physical activity, green spaces and heat.”
As part of one project, Dr Rojas and his team measured the impact of encouraging all children who lived within a kilometre of their school to walk there each day. The result was a dramatic improvement in the children’s health, including a reduction in those suffering from high blood pressure and obesity.
Their findings are also challenging the common misconceptions about whether the harm caused by air pollution counteracts the benefits of walking or cycling in cities. “The benefit is 70 times bigger than the risk,” explained Dr Rojas.
He added that another big challenge for the future will be to combine the data on different environmental factors to produce models that can give far more comprehensive predictions for policy decisions.