A noisy world is killing us

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

From Health cover this sound raises lev­els of stress hor­mones such as cor­ti­sol, adrenalin and no­ra­drenalin — hor­mones which, if in con­stant cir­cu­la­tion, can cause long-term phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes that could be life-threat­en­ing.

The health ef­fects re­port iden­ti­fied cer­tain groups of peo­ple who were more sen­si­tive to the ef­fects of noise pol­lu­tion, and thus faced greater health risks. Th­ese in­cluded in­fants and school chil­dren, shift work­ers, the el­derly, the blind and those suf­fer­ing hear­ing im­pair­ment, sleep disor­ders and phys­i­cal and men­tal health con­di­tions.

The sus­cep­ti­bil­ity of chil­dren cor­re­lates with a re­port in Lancet (2005 Jun 4-10; 365 (9475):1942-9), which found that chronic ex­po­sure to en­vi­ron­men­tal noise, in par­tic­u­lar air­craft and road traf­fic noise, leads to im­paired cog­ni­tive func­tion and health in chil­dren. It as­sessed al­most 3000 chil­dren aged 9-10 years from 89 schools out of of 77 ap­proached in the Nether­lands, 27 in Spain, and 30 in the UK lo­cated in lo­cal author­ity ar­eas around three ma­jor air­ports.

‘‘ Our find­ings in­di­cate that a chronic en­vi­ron­men­tal stres­sor — air­craft noise — could im­pair cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment in chil­dren, specif­i­cally read­ing com­pre­hen­sion,’’ the re­searchers con­cluded. ‘‘ Schools ex­posed to high lev­els of air­craft noise are not healthy ed­u­ca­tional en­vi­ron­ments.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Queens­land’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), one of the bod­ies re­spon­si­ble for con­trol­ling un­wanted racket, more than 40 per cent of Aus­tralians are dis­turbed at home or lose sleep be­cause of noise pol­lu­tion.

Yet com­pared to the pub­lic health is­sue of smok­ing, which be­comes sub­ject to ever more ro­bust leg­is­la­tion and so­cial stigma each year, com­mu­nity aware­ness of noise haz­ards re­mains rel­a­tively low.

In Aus­tralia, re­spon­si­bil­ity for the is­sue is di­luted across a range of na­tional, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

It’s hoped the new WHO es­ti­mates will pro­vide gov­ern­ments with stronger jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for con­trol­ling nui­sance noise and help lo­cal au­thor­i­ties de­ter­mine where, when and how to take ac­tion.

Still, turn­ing down the vol­ume on daily life is such an over­whelm­ing task, it’s hard to know where to start, says Cowan: ‘‘ As a so­ci­ety we’re be­com­ing more aware of (the im­pact of) loud lev­els of back­ground noise but, ‘ What are we go­ing to do about it?’ be­comes a whole other ques­tion.’’

Euro­pean na­tions are in­tro­duc­ing some rad­i­cal so­lu­tions to cut the din. By the end of the year, all Euro­pean cities with pop­u­la­tions ex­ceed­ing 250,000 will be re­quired by law to have pro­duced digi­tised noise maps show­ing hotspots where traf­fic noise and vol­ume are great­est.

Cou­pled with data on health ef­fects, this should al­low them to bet­ter tar­get anti-noise mea­sures, such as re-rout­ing traf­fic away from hos­pi­tals and schools and erect­ing noise bar­ri­ers. In the longer term, it will map high con­cen­tra­tions of so­cial noise — around mu­sic venues, for in­stance.

This will then feed into plan­ning reg­u­la­tions which will, say, pre­vent high den­sity res­i­den­tial build­ings be­ing con­structed or re­fur­bished in ar­eas of high so­cial noise con­cen­tra­tion.

Given that heavy truck traf­fic ar­guably cre­ates far higher lev­els of noise than pas­sen­ger cars, Cowan says other mea­sures might in­clude sep­a­rat­ing re-rout­ing heavy trans­port from in­ner-city traf­fic. ‘‘ How­ever, this would re­quire sig­nif­i­cant fur­ther in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture.’’

Other so­lu­tions that should be con­sid­ered tar­get the source of the noise — that is, the ve­hi­cle it­self.

‘‘ One of the main sources of noise is the road noise from tyre con­tact,’’ says Cowan. ‘‘ While we de­sign tyres and tyre com­pounds to have max­i­mum grip for ve­hi­cle safety, per­haps fund­ing for re­search into qui­eter tyres would ad­dress one of the source prob­lems.’’

Ini­tia­tives aimed at pro­mot­ing a cul­ture of qui­eter ex­hausts, or qui­eter en­gines, could also be in­ves­ti­gated.

‘‘ Just as we are con­sid­er­ing a car­bon or gas emis­sion is­sue in cars, why not con­sider a noise emis­sion rat­ing? And per­haps pro­vide tax in­cen­tives for car man­u­fac­tur­ers to make qui­eter cars, and then en­cour­age pur­chase of such ve­hi­cles,’’ says Cowan.

‘‘ We should note that air­line com­pa­nies are al­ready in­vest­ing heav­ily in qui­eter en­gines. The new Boe­ing Dream­liner has clearly iden­ti­fied qui­eter en­gines as a pri­mary sell­ing point for air­lines and pas­sen­gers, as well as be­ing a boon to so­ci­ety,’’ he says.

But th­ese and other po­ten­tial so­lu­tions re­quire time, money — and im­mense po­lit­i­cal and so­cial will. ‘‘ It’s a more com­plex prob­lem than just say­ing, ‘ Turn it down’,’’ says Cowan. ‘‘ I wish it were that sim­ple.’’

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