This Sound Is Killing You
For as long as there have been cities, there has been noise pollution. Even the ancient Roman poet Juvenal once complained: “Insomnia causes most deaths here.… Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions, and that’s the root of the trouble. The wagons thundering past through those narrow, twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic jam, would rouse a dozing seal — or an emperor.”
Research has shown that the loud, unwanted sounds we all live with are having substantial negative effects on our physical and psychological health. Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychiatry at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London, says that these sounds provoke our stress response, which, in turn, can lead to a long list of diseases and disorders, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Even low levels of noise can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. According to Mathias Basner, associate professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, just 40 decibels (the level of sound that comes out of a window-unit air conditioner) can affect sensitive people, especially over long periods of time. In a report Basner produced for the World Health Organization, he estimated that a million years of life are lost in Western countries due to noise pollution, and that’s not including the costs to concentration and productivity. Work errors and memory loss increase in loud areas, while students in noisier schools show skill levels months behind their peers in quieter environments.
Part of the problem with all this noise is that we also miss out on positive sounds, like sounds we need for survival. For every 10-decibel increase of noise, we lose the ability to hear another 90 percent of the listening area around us. And that means we end up walking around the world in an auditory bubble, dulling our ability to notice the important information that sounds can give us — like the approach of that oncoming car.