Noise pollution – an underrated environmental problem

First published April 2008, last updated March 2012

Long gone are the days of pumping Metallica through my skull. To me, silence is golden nowadays – not necessarily total silence, but an environment free of mechanical, electrical and other forms of human generated noise as much as possible. 

I feel I can think more clearly in a relatively noise-free environment and to be able to hear natural sounds that I otherwise wouldn’t is wonderful. Many people haven’t experienced this and I believe they are really missing out.

Unfortunately, I will never be totally free from noise due to tinnitus (the perception of a constant ringing/buzzing and other various sounds) thanks to the time I’ve spent around industrial noise – and Metallica I guess :). 

In the days when I was a fisherman and pre-tinnitus, I experienced what would possibly be the closest thing to total silence. We were over 30 miles out to sea, so there was no land in sight and just drifting along with our lines. It was a flat calm day, the rest of the crew were sleeping; engines and other equipment were shut down and there wasn’t even a sound of water lapping on the hull. No insects, no birds.

It was quite an experience, one that gives the term “the silence was deafening” real meaning. I could hear my heart beating and every breath I took sounded like a shout. But that experience was an overkill of silence – some level of background sound is needed.

Noise pollution however is a growing environmental problem – it’s far from just being an annoyance as it has very real negative effects on humans (beyond tinnitus) and animals.

The effect of noise on humans

In humans, it’s been shown that exposure to moderately high levels of noise for an eight hour period can increase blood pressure and cause other cardiac issues – even if the person is not particularly consciously disturbed. Noise pollution can also cause gastric problems. Sometimes a person doesn’t even realize their body is stressed by noise until the noise is no longer present – they just feel a sudden sense of relief.

Exposure to excessively loud noise over long periods can also lead to partial deafness. Approximately 10 percent of people living in industrialized areas have substantial hearing loss and youngsters in the USA have an impaired hearing rate 250% higher than their parents and grandparents.

Noise also lies at the root of some violence – many assaults and murders can be attributed to a noise issue that spiralled out of control. Where noise is used to irritate or disrupt others, in my opinion it’s also a form of assault.

The effect of noise on the environment

In nature, noise causes many adverse effects on animals and even plants – here are some examples:

  • Birds in a city need to call longer and louder than their country counterparts
  • Birds that rely on hearing to help locate prey are seriously disadvantaged by industrial noise
  • Noise disturbs feeding and breeding patterns of some animals and has been identified as a contributing factor of the extinction of some species. 
  • Aircraft noise and sonic booms have been implicated as a cause of lowered reproduction in a variety of animals.
  • Military sonar has been responsible for the deaths of possibly thousands of dolphins and whales.
  • Even outboard motor noise can confuse some whales and dolphins.
  • In dairy cows, excessive noise reduces feed consumption, milk yield, and rate of milk release
  • Noise causes increased incidence of miscarriages in caribou
  • Intense noise can affect growth of chickens and egg production
  • Canaries can suffer hearing damage at relatively low decibel levels if the noise is sustained
  • Noise has also been shown to have a detrimental effect on the reproduction of some plants through interfering with pollinator or seed spreading activity.
  • Traffic noise could be hampering the reproductive process of frogs in metropolitan areas by drowning out the mating calls of males.
  • When squid, octopus and cuttlefish are subjected to low frequency sound, sever lesions can develop in their auditory structures

Imagine a world without noise

I’ve often wondered how much quieter the world would be if every single combustion engine was switched off and all electrical equipment shut down for a few minutes simultaneously. After all, noise doesn’t really disappear, like all energy it just changes form or dissipates. Given this, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, does the sum total of all the human-generated noise in the world still affect that area? I suspect it does, even if it’s only to a small degree – like pointing a torchlight at the moon. The light does hit it, but just so widely spread it’s hardly detectable. 

Perhaps if all combustion engines were silenced briefly we may all fling ourselves off cliffs in blind panic? It’s certainly something that most of the humans living on the planet today wouldn’t be accustomed to.

We are very noisy creatures and the din we create in its various forms is just another layer between us and fully appreciating the beauty of the natural world.

Finding easily accessible quiet places, really quiet places, where the only noises are those of nature, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Noise is very much underrated when it comes to environmental issues. We have our “turn out the lights” days, “don’t drive” days – I’d love to see a “no noise” hour initiative. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what quiet is  and if we don’t teach our children, they will never appreciate the concept of a noise-free experience.

Our usual reaction to dealing with noise is to add more noise – for example, turning up the TV or yelling. We simply don’t know what we’re blocking out, and what we don’t know, we don’t miss.

Playing your part in reducing noise

Noise is something we can all do something about; whether it’s fixing a faulty muffler on your car, turning down our music a little so our neighbors don’t have to listen to it  or making the effort when out in the wild not to yell and shout unnecessarily. Here are some other tips for noise reduction:

  • Cell phones ringing annoy the hell out of many people – keeps yours to the lowest level practicable
  • If you have to raise your voice to have a conversation, something is wrong; so see what noise sources around in your immediate environment that you have control over.
  • Discourage your dogs from barking unnecessarily for extended periods. Barking dogs feature heavily in disputes between neighbors.
  • Institute a quiet time in your household’s routine
  • Make special efforts to keep noise to a minimum at night and early in the morning as these are times when people are trying to unwind or sleep
  • Believe me, very few people want to hear your music, no matter how cool you think it is. There’s other ways to make social statements that are likely more effective and will have a more positive response :)
  • If you do want to turn your stereo up; ensure the doors and windows are closed and reduce the bass levels as bass travels even through brick walls quite easily.
  • If your lifestyle is a particularly rowdy one, consider planting more shrubs and trees around your property. Not only will this reduce noise affecting your neighbors, you’ll provide shelter and food for animals (if they can tolerate the din) and also play a part in greenhouse gas reduction.
  • Swapping over a car or motorbike muffler to something that increases the noise substantially as a result isn’t cool; it’s irresponsible and inconsiderate. A four-cylinder car will still sound like a 4 cylinder car that is now trying too hard to be something it isn’t. A dirt bike with this sort of modification could attract the wrong sort of attention and a loud exhaust will set fauna in a wide area on edge. It’s been my unfortunate experience most dirt-bike riders are pretty much oblivious to just how far sound carries out in the boonies; or they simply don’t care.

Teaching our kids about quiet

If you have children, please take them out into the woods or forests, as far away from human activity as possible and get them to sit and just listen for a while. It may not have much effect on them immediately, but it’s something they may remember and cherish years later – a point of reference for what a more environmentally harmonious life should be. Also do it just for yourself from time to time – it can be a very soothing experience in what is becoming an increasingly complicated existence.