Noise pollution is loud and excessive noise in the environment. It can prove just as dangerous as water or air pollution. Constant exposure to noise pollution can adversely impact and even damage the hearing facilities of humans and animals. Further, it can disrupt animal behaviors and ecologies, all contributing to the environmental impact of noise pollution.
According to the World Health Organization, noise levels above 70 dB (A) are dangerous to the environment.
How does long-term exposure affect us and the environment? The article covers the causes of noise pollution and the many environmental impacts of noise pollution. We also explore the adverse health effects of noise pollution on humans and wildlife.
Using the traditional definition, noise pollution is a disturbing and unwanted sound. An unwanted sound is a noise that interferes with sleep schedules and conversations and disrupts the quality of a person's life. As urban development increases, noise from various sources constantly surrounds us.
Sadly, state and local governments don't pay enough attention to noise pollution because it isn't as visible as air pollution. However, noise pollution is a form of air pollution. The only time many of us can enjoy quiet in the atmosphere is during the nighttime, and even then, in urban settings, sirens, traffic noise, and other sounds regularly permeate the night.
In the European Union, about 20% of people that live in the member states experience unhealthy noise volumes. Noise pollution affects the standard of living of people's lives, leading to an increase in stress hormones.
Environmental noise also causes sleep disturbance, mental health problems, and hypertension. However, the primary health problem attached to environmental noise pollution is noise-induced hearing loss. Noise pollution also affects various wildlife species.
There are various causes of environmental noise pollution10. The causes include:
Transportation noise sources refer to noise caused by the movement of vehicles. Transportation noise includes aircraft noise, railway noise, and road noise.
Road traffic is always loud because cars and trucks move from one destination to another. The factors affecting traffic noise are the type of road vehicles, friction between the tires and the road surface, and the driver's behavior and style.
Railway transportation produces noise but less noise than road transportation. The noise from trains comes from the engines, warning signals, wagons, and vehicles moving on rail tracks. Aircraft noise arises from various aircraft engines and noise caused by the airplane's structure.
Industrial noise, or occupational noise, is a by-product of industrial activities. People who work in steelwork industries or manufacturing facilities surrounded by machinery are always around industrial noise. The sources of occupational noise include machinery, construction, and vehicles.
Construction noise comes from activities like demolition, site preparation, building, extensions, and structural changes. The construction noise level often depends on the type of construction, the stage it's in, and the construction equipment. For instance, clearing and preparing a construction site uses noisy equipment.
Leisure noise, also known as recreational noise, is from recreational activities. Examples of leisure noise sources are parties, religious congregations, discotheques, nightclubs, and personal listening devices.
Noise pollution primarily affects humans and biodiversity. So, we will discuss the adverse effects of environmental noise pollution on humans, animals, and plants.
Long-term exposure to noise puts human health at risk, with researchers evidencing the harmful effects of noise pollution. It can cause hearing impairment, cardiovascular diseases, annoyance, and sleep disturbance.
Constant exposure to urban noise can lead to hearing loss. Hearing impairment is a disability that affects one's daily life and personal efficiency. People with hearing impairments find it difficult to hear, process, and understand speech at low background noise levels.
People exposed to sound frequencies between 500 Hz and 6,000 Hz experience hearing problems. Sound frequencies that can affect your hearing permanently are between 3,000 Hz and 6,000 Hz.
However, the World Health Organization specifies that hearing loss doesn't occur at 70 dB (A). This means that most people exposed to environmental and leisure noise at 70 dB (A) or less are not at risk of hearing problems.
Even without lifetime exposure, a sudden high-pitched disturbing sound can cause mechanical damage to the inner and outer ear9. The hearing threshold leading to ear damage is 140 dB (A). Exposure to 120 dB (A) can damage children's ears. Also, shooting noises at 80 dB (A) can harm hearing functions.
Noise pollution also leads to tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is most common among people that listen to loud music with headphones, attend music concerts, or have been exposed to ongoing loud sounds. Sometimes tinnitus caused by noise pollution is temporary. Here, it only lasts 24 hours after exposure.
According to the NIDCD, about 25 million Americans experienced tinnitus lasting at least 5 minutes.
Sleep is an essential human function, and we can not ignore it. Human beings' functioning ability becomes impaired when we do not sleep well. After a long day of work and high-stress levels, a good night's sleep rejuvenates us. People who work night shifts sleep during the daytime. Lack of sleep prevents brain restoration and rest periods for the cardiovascular system.
However, many people experience sleep disruption because of the noise sources around them, which, in turn, interferes with their daytime activities, adversely affecting moods and cognitive performance. People exposed to nighttime noise often experience noise annoyance, affecting their state of mind. They are often grumpy, angry, and fatigued due to lack of sleep.
Negative changes in your sleep quality can lead to other health problems:
One effect of loud noise on human health is high blood pressure. Constant exposure to traffic noise can result in high blood pressure, leaving you at risk of developing ischemic heart disease.
A Chinese study conducted among 20,000 people living in rural communities in 1997 showed that noise determines systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Caerphilly and Speedwell's study shows that people living in areas with an average of 50 and 55 sound decibels are at risk of experiencing ischemic heart disease.
People working in industrial areas experience noise at the value of 85 decibels. These people are at risk of experiencing hypertension. Evidence of research conducted on Berlin women shows the resting levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The norepinephrine levels of women with bedrooms facing a busy street (at least 20,000 vehicles pass daily) were high.
Children are also at risk of cardiovascular disease. Children exposed to heavy traffic noise have an increase in their systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
A study conducted by Slovakian researchers on children between the ages of three and seven found that children living in noisy areas have higher blood pressure, unlike children living in quiet areas.
A Munich aircraft noise study documented the neuroendocrine indices of chronic stress. The researchers found children exposed to airplane noise had higher levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Noise pollution affects the entirety of marine animals. Naval sonar and seismic surveys are extremely dangerous to whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Cetacean exposure to moderate levels of mid-frequency military sonar can cause multiple deaths and strandings.
With urban growth starting from the 1960s, we created more powerful sonars. These sonars caused over 40 mass stranding of Cuvier beaked whales5; about 28 were stranded because of naval sonars. Their autopsies show they bleed internally, in their hearts and brains.
Noise exposure caused them to panic, and changing their diving pattern led to decompression sickness hemorrhaging. Whales often change their breeding and feeding habitats because constant noise has changed their migration patterns. They can also change their whale calls or become mute.
Research shows that 24 species of cetaceans have an adverse reaction to noise. They include sperm whales, pilot whales, beluga whales, killer whale, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, dolphins, harbor porpoises, and Risso's dolphins.
Related: Why do whales beach themselves?
Seismic air guns also caused the stranding of 9 giant squids between 2001 and 2003. The giant squids had internal injuries that go as far as destroying internal organs. Constant noise also affected the brown shrimp kept in a tank. The shrimp developed a high metabolism from the noise exposure. This led to low growth and reproduction rates for over three months.
Another marine species that react to seismic noise is snow crabs. Snow crabs exposed to seismic noise had internal injuries, abnormal ovaries, smaller larvae, delayed development, soiled gills, and signs of stress. Some reports showed that lobsters' interaction with noise led to an increased appetite. Codfish, also affected by seismic noise levels, had an increased appetite for over a month.
Noise pollution affects marine life significantly. Exposure to high noise levels led to ear damage in animals within 500 meters to several kilometers. Seismic waves disturbed the fishing of haddock, codfish, rockfish, blue whiting, sand eel, and herring. Boat noise disturbance led to a disruption in Bluefin tuna's school structure and swimming behaviors.
Research also shows goldfish, catfish, sea bass, bluefin tuna, rockfish, sand eel, and codfish as part of the 21 species of fish that noise affects. Fish species of all ages can become sensitive to noise. Research shows that the heartbeats of clownfish embryos as old as three days increased because of noise.
Noise pollution caused by human activities affects the behavioral patterns of bird species. Specific bird populations are declining because of the noise produced by urban growth.
Many bird species have changed their calls to adjust to the high sound levels in the air6. Bird calls are a series of sounds birds use to communicate. Sound is an essential communication tool in avian society. They use sounds known as mating calls to seduce other sexes and facilitate reproduction.
However, noise pollution is interfering with their communication mode. Some bird species adjusted to loud noise by increasing their songs to a higher frequency. This helps them communicate better and increases their reproductive rates. However, anthropogenic noise is more harmful to animals that do not learn their calls. They have no way of increasing their sound frequencies.
Some bird populations experience low reproductive rates because they don't benefit enough from spectral adjustments to avoid its impacts. Also, reproduction rates become low because spectral adjustments reduce their attractiveness.
Human activities interfere with the low-frequency sounds of female birds, impacting their reproductive endeavors. Research conducted with the great tits birds showed the male great tits birds increasing the frequency of their calls. They switch their sound frequencies because their natural low noise levels are not effective during mating seasons in areas with constant noise.
A study conducted in 2007 discovered that urban European robins could adjust the timing of their songs to counteract loud noise. Urban European robins are highly territorial and depend on vocal communication. However, they had to change their communication techniques because of the constant increase in ambient noise levels. So, they sing at night in areas with high noise levels. Birds singing at night when they aren't supposed to indicate behavioral change.
Noise pollution also disrupts ecological services in wildlife. For instance, a study regarding how noise pollution is altering landscapes shows noise pollution's indirect increment of the hummingbird's pollination rates. It also affected the community of animals that disperse pinyon nut pine tree seeds. They don't frequent noisy areas, reducing seeds and seedling dispersal in these areas2. This has a long-term effect on the environment.
Increasing evidence shows how severe noise pollution affects biodiversity. Research conducted by Jesse Barber from Boise State University shows the reduction of migrating birds that stop in Idaho forests to rest3. They stimulate traffic noise, and over four days, the number of migrating birds, especially the yellow warblers, that stopped to rest kept reducing.
Also, noise pollution messes with the feeding habits of some avian animals. Some animals hunt for their meal using sounds. Sound interference can disrupt their hunting process, damning them to starvation.
For instance, the greater mouse-eared bats take more time to detect the sounds of their prey over high noise. Research also showed the impact of highway traffic noise on the greater mouse-eared bat4. Their perception of sound becomes disrupted when they are 60 meters from the highway, impairing their hunting abilities.
Related: Learn more about how bats use sonar or sound to move around in our list of brilliant bat facts.
Some birds avoid loud places instead of adjusting their vocal frequencies. A study on scrub jaybirds showed their behavior in avoiding noisy environments during the nesting season1. Different owl species and bird predators are not exempt from the adverse effects of noise pollution on their behavioral patterns and health.
Read more about our feathered friends and reasons to protect them in our compilation of bird facts.
Road traffic noise is one of land animals' most disturbing noise sources. A study on the prairie dog, a keystone dog species, showed that noise highly impacted its foraging and vigilant behaviors7. Long-term exposure to traffic noise reduces prairie dogs' aboveground and foraging activities.
The experiment reduced prairie dogs' ground presence by 21%. The dogs who came out to forage reduced by 18%, while their vigilance increased by 48%. Their resting rates and social interactions became lower.
Traffic noise alters the established behaviors of animals and drives them away from their preferred habitat. It also affects the sexual behaviors of land species. Male frogs use voice calls to inform their potential mate about their body size, strength, and fighting skills.
Dr. Kirsten Parris conducted a study on the impact of noise on frogs8. In Melbourne, Australia, she discovered frogs increase the frequency of their calls. The first species of frog used in the experiment, a southern brown tree frog, emits sounds at a higher frequency. The second species, the common eastern froglet, can also call loudly, but not as loud as the southern brown tree frog. There are moments when common eastern froglets cannot increase the frequency of their sounds.
Female frogs won't hear if male frogs do not call at a higher sound level in traffic. However, some female frogs prefer low-pitched calls. The noise reduces the attractiveness of a male frog to the female frog because he calls out to her loudly.
The public will only look for solutions to a problem they know about. State and local governments should have a body that disburses information regarding noise pollution. An example of this is the European Environment Agency. The European Union created its first noise control act in 1996. Currently, the EU has a set of laws known as the Environmental Noise Directive.
The Environmental Noise Directive is a set of laws and guidelines that identify various levels of noise pollution and reduce environmental pollution. It also ensures that accurate information regarding noise pollution is shared with the public and preserves the noise quality in quiet areas.
The Noise Control Act 1972 provides means for efficient coordination of federal research and noise control activities. Like the environmental noise directive, the noise control act provides the American public with information about noise pollution.
The rapid urbanization of our world has yielded numerous negative consequences for our oceans, wildlife, and human health. Undoubtedly, our bustling daily activities contribute significantly to air pollution and noise pollution, a lesser-known yet equally critical concern. Although government sanctions seek to reduce the impact of noise pollution, they alone are insufficient in addressing the problem.
As responsible citizens, we must prioritize safeguarding our ears from the onslaught of noise pollution, particularly if we work in industrial settings or locations with high levels of recreational noise.
We must equip ourselves with adequate hearing protection devices, such as earplugs and earmuffs, to shield our eardrums from harmful noise exposure.
Furthermore, we should acknowledge the impacts of noise pollution on our planet's biodiversity, as it poses a serious threat to animals and the delicate balance of ecosystems that support all forms of life. We can collectively protect ourselves and the countless species inhabiting our shared world by reducing noise levels and supporting environmentally-friendly policies and practices.
Francis, Clinton & Paritsis, Juan & Ortega, Catherine & Cruz, Alexander. (2011). Landscape patterns of avian habitat use and nest success are affected by chronic gas well compressor noise. Landscape Ecology. 26. 1269-1280. 10.1007/s10980-011-9609-z.
Francis Clinton D., Kleist Nathan J., Ortega Catherine P. and Cruz Alexander 2012. Noise pollution alters ecological services: enhanced pollination and disrupted seed dispersal. Proc. R. Soc. B.2792727–2735
Ware, H. E., McClure, C. J., Carlisle, J. D., & Barber, J. R. (2015). A phantom road experiment reveals traffic noise is an invisible source of habitat degradation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(39), 12105-12109.
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Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.