Life’s fev­er­ish pitch killing us

Ground-break­ing re­search has linked noise pol­lu­tion to pre­ma­ture death and dis­ease. Denise Cullen re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

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

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