Life’s feverish pitch killing us
Ground-breaking research has linked noise pollution to premature death and disease. Denise Cullen reports
THE myriad pressures of modern life are often blamed for causing stressrelated illness, but research from the world’s leading health watchdog suggests it’s not so much the pace of life, but the accompanying volume that’s killing us. New evidence from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that thousands of people around the world may be dying prematurely, or succumbing to disease, through the effects of chronic noise exposure.
‘‘ We live in a far noisier society than previous generations,’’ says associate professor Bob Cowan, CEO of The Hearing Cooperative Research Centre.
Cacophony descends on us from all directions: constant traffic, the wail of emergency services sirens, the roar of aircraft overhead, the hammer of heavy machinery, the squeal of car alarms, the endless trill of mobile phones and the staccato barking of the next door neighbour’s dog.
This relentless racket has reached such a fever pitch that many of us have forgotten what silence sounds like.
Cowan points out that restaurants in the 1970s, for instance, covered their tables with damask cloths, hung heavy drapes at the windows and placed hangings on the walls — all of which acted to absorb unwanted sound: ‘‘ You wanted quiet, so you could have intimate conversations.’’
Times have changed. Restaurants now are ‘‘ reverberant environments’’ which create a trendy buzz and the illusion of busyness with bare tables, hard floors, reflective surfaces and vaulted ceilings.
This creeping tide of surround sound occurs in countless other settings, and many of us are resigned to it. We dismiss it as an inevitable fact of modern life — but it’s making us sick.
‘‘ The level of background noise today might not damage your hearing directly, but it can lead to other health problems such as an increase in stress, negative effects on concentration, and others,’’ says Cowan.
Many previous studies have made weak links between noise pollution and ill-health, but the WHO findings provide the clearest and most disturbing connection yet between unwanted noise and sudden, early death.
As reported in New Scientist this week, WHO’s findings, though preliminary, show that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for 3 per cent of deaths from ischemic heart disease in Europe — typically strokes and heart attacks.
‘‘ Given that 7 million people around the globe die each year from heart disease, that would put the toll from exposure to noise at around 210,000 deaths,’’ the report notes.
As well as the projections for deaths from heart disease, the WHO figures suggest that 2 per cent of Europeans suffer severely disturbed sleep because of noise pollution, and at least 15 per cent suffer severe annoyance.
The researchers calculate that chronic exposure to loud traffic noise causes 3 per cent of all cases of tinnitus, in which sufferers hear constant noise in their ears. They also estimate the damage caused by noise pollution to children’s ability to learn, and the damage to hearing caused by ‘‘ leisure noise’’, such as listening to loud music on MP3 players or attending pop concerts and discos.
Local research indicates Australians are no less susceptible to assaults on their eardrums.
Doctor Tharit Issarayangyun, a research analyst with the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at The University of Sydney, was one of a team which studied the health of residents living near Sydney Airport along with residents in a matched control suburb unaffected by aircraft noise.
The results, published this year in Journal of Air Transport Management (13, 2007 264-276), revealed that people chronically exposed to high aircraft noise levels were more likely to report stress, and more likely to report elevated blood pressure compared with those not exposed to aircraft noise.
The mechanisms by which noise causes illness are complex, but a 2004 federal government report, The Health Effects of Environmental Noise - Other Than Hearing Loss, noted that hearing evolved from a basic need to alert, warn and communicate: ‘‘ As a result, sound — wanted or unwanted — directly evokes reflexes, emotions and actions, which can be a stimulant and a stressor.’’
Subsequent research revealed in New Scientist explains that the body’s reaction to Continued inside - Page 19
Keeping tabs: Bob Cowan, inset, knows we live in a far noisier environment than any previous generation