We all know that air pollution is choking our planet — and our lungs. But noise pollution from automobiles is almost as bad.
Noise pollution from busy roads is nearly as harmful to our health as air pollution, according to the World Health Organization — but a new study reveals we’re not doing nearly enough research to understand, much less regulate, the sonic impact of cars on our bodies.
A team of Italian researchers found a broad consensus emerge from more than 250 scientific articles: urban noise pollution causes a variety of psychological, cardiovascular, and other health disorders — and the experts estimated that it costs “at least one million healthy life years” per year across Western Europe. Another, earlier study found that residents of Paris and its surrounding suburbs lose an average of “more than three healthy life-years” each to the health impacts of sonic disturbances caused by primarily by cars – something that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is tackling head-on with her aggressive 15-minute city campaign to reduce driving.
The researchers didn’t consider the specific impact of automobile noise on American ears. But it’s pretty clear we’re suffering too; only 65.5 percent of Europeans are routinely exposed to traffic noises above 50 decibels, but 97 percent of Americans live with that level of constant ruckus from our car-dominated road network.
Fifty decibels might not sound like much to the average American; it’s roughly equivalent the sound of a running dishwasher. But if listening to the sound of a noisy household appliance all day sounds merely annoying, it’s important to remember that even low-level noise pollution can be profoundly dangerous — and America’s roadways are constant sources of sonic disturbance.
The sound of a car horn, a Harley or pickup with a deliberately loud muffler, or even simply an average sedan doing a legal 40 miles per hour on a nearby road can all activate the “fight or flight” response of our nervous systems, pumping our bodies full of stress hormones that increase our blood pressure, accelerate our heart rates, and weaken our vascular and digestive systems over time. You may not physically even notice it…but it’s happening.
Worst of all, continuous noises like these can trigger these hormones even when we sleep, preventing our brains from entering the most restful stages of rest that we need to optimally learn, heal, and regulate our moods — even if the noises aren’t loud enough to actually wake us up. The World Health Organization recommends noise levels of no more than 40 decibels outside of our bedrooms, roughly equivalent to the ambient sounds of a hushed library.
Even small discrepancies in sleep can have enormous impacts not only on health, but also on education. In a recent study of college students, teenagers who got a good night’s sleep did 25 percent better in academic settings compared to students who didn’t — a particularly disturbing discrepancy, considering that people of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as immigrants and non-English speakers, are disproportionately likely to live within 150 meters of a highway.