When I was a toddler, I would stand at my crib rail, wrinkling my nose at all the cigarette smoke from an adult house party. It was the hey day of tobacco companies, when people had fancy cigarette holders full of free cigarettes for guests. Rumours of lung cancer were just starting to get people’s attention.
In the 1940s and 1950s, science proved a global lung cancer epidemic was from cigarettes. Manufacturers disputed the evidence, fighting government regulation. Sometimes I wonder if my chronic asthma is from my 1960s childhood second-hand cigarette smoke exposure. In 2012, Robert Proctor from the History Department of Stanford University said, “The cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization. Cigarettes cause about 1.5 million deaths from lung cancer per year.”
Deadliest Artifact is Noise
In the 1970s to 1990s, science proved noise risk to communication as well as mental, physical, and hearing health. Manufacturers still dispute the evidence, fighting government regulation. Even though more recent science proves noise risk is even greater than previously believed.
In their 2011 publication Burden of disease from environmental noise, the World Health Organization reported at least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western part of Europe. In 2014, the UK estimated the annual social cost of urban road noise alone at £7 to 10 billion. Aircraft noise is an even bigger health risk. The total global health epidemic from aircraft and other noise sources impacts far more people than cigarettes ever did.
Environmental noise should be considered not only as a cause of nuisance but also a concern for public health and environmental health.World Health Organization, www.euro.who.int
In my opinion, the deadliest artifact is community noise pollution. I didn’t become a quiet activist until around 2016. That was when I saw the noise level measurements from aircraft, road traffic, trains, and railways. I was shocked how loud community noise exposure is from these sound sources compared to World Health Organization recommended healthy limits.
My first thought was, “We’re all going to die.”
My second thought was, “Healthcare systems will collapse.”
My third thought was, “I better help make world quieter.”
Noise Pollution Health Epidemics
In 2018, Daniel Fink of The Quiet Coalition wrote, Noise Kills. Noise health risks include disturbed sleep, stress, anxiety, depression, delayed reading, high blood pressure, hearing loss, tinnitus, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and higher risk of dementia. Current media reports on rising global epidemics of these health problems in children, teens, and adults recommend different solutions including:
- Reading training
- Healthy lifestyle
- 17 sleep better tips
- Anti-anxiety and depression video games
- Depression vaccine
- Daily baths or communal bathing
- Teach children to manage stress better
- Learn to manage emotions and be optimistic
Noise pollution is never mentioned as a risk factor.
Noise control is never mentioned as prevention for these health epidemics.
Maybe kids would want to play outside more if there wasn’t all the noise and air pollution.
People Most At Risk
The World Health Organization reports the people most at risk from noise pollution include:
- Chronically ill
- Shift workers
- Low income
The World Health Organization states, “Impairment of early childhood development and education caused by noise may have lifelong effects on academic achievement and health.” Risk depends on where you live. Depending on the community, people could have health inequity and residential segregation compared to people who live in healthy quiet communities.
The gap between rich and poor is likely to increase if governments fail to address noise pollution.World Health Organization, www.euro.who.int
Noise Health Risk is Preventable and Reversible
In 2002, a German study looked at cognitive health risk for school children living in communities exposed to aircraft noise pollution. The old Munich Airport was being shut down, ending related community noise pollution. A new Munich Airport was being opened in a different community location. The study looked at:
- school kids with normal hearing
- Group 1: at least 2 years of exposure in old airport community
- Group 2: 2 years of exposure at new airport community
- Same age, gender, ethnicity, number of family members, parental occupation, or education
Airport Noise Control: Reading & Long Term Memory in School Children
|Group 1 Community|
Age = 8-12 years old
|Old Munich Airport |
|Old Munich Airport|
|Long Term Memory||IMPAIRED||Improved|
|Group 2 Community|
Age = 8-12 years old
|New Munich Airport |
Not Open Yet
|New Munich Airport|
|Long Term Memory||Average||IMPAIRED|
Reading ability and long term memory were impaired for children living in communities with aircraft noise pollution.
The good news is that reading ability and long term memory improved after noise pollution levels dropped.
The bad news is that noise pollution related cognitive impairment in school children moved with the noise pollution to the new airport community.
Government Noise Control Progress
A recent Australian article on hidden dangers of urban noise described how noise pollution health risk has only been proved recently in World Health Organization Environmental Noise Guidelines (2018). This is not factual. The World Health Organization published Guidelines for Community Noise in 1999 and Night Noise Guidelines in 2009.
In 2002, a European Union Directive on Environmental Noise required EU member states, including the UK, to do noise mapping every 5 years, and use the results to establish action plans to control and reduce noise damage from road traffic, railways, major airports, and industry.
Countries have been noise mapping for over 15 years. Why is noise pollution getting worse?
For the same reason that occupational noise is not properly controlled and prevented. Noise control is not mandatory. The Environmental Noise Directive that requires noise mapping says authorities should address local noise issues by drawing up action plans and long term strategies to reduce noise where necessary. But:
- action plan left to discretion of the “competent authorities”
- if feasible or practical
In 2017, the European Commission reported on an Evaluation of the Environmental Noise Directive. It found noise pollution still constitutes a major environmental health problem but noise population exposure data was so far not used for legislation on noise at source.
Children’s Community Rights
Humans have the right to health. This includes children living in communities where everyone’s mental, physical, and hearing health are protected from aircraft, road traffic, railways, and other noise pollution sources.
If measurements showed community drinking water was toxic enough to cause health damage, communities would expect governments to fix the problem and protect everyone’s health. It would never be acceptable for governments to ignore the problem, and expand the toxic drinking water to more communities.
Measurement shows community noise pollution is toxic enough to cause health damage. Enough that it’s a global public health crisis. Yet governments ignore the problem, and plan to expand noise pollution to more communities instead of fixing the existing problem. For example, planning 3rd runway for Heathrow Airport in UK.
Noise Science Experts Agree
- If noise pollution gets worse, the community health crisis will get worse
- If noise pollution stays the same as now, the community health crisis will get worse
- If governments measure, plan and take action to lower noise pollution, the community health crisis will improve
Competent authorities are desperately needed, with airport community noise control an urgent high priority.
Young people who can’t vote are getting frustrated with pollution from noise, air, and light. Their right to health is not being protected by most global governments. In the U.S., Senators still haven’t approved funding the Quiet Communities Act of 2018. When children as young as 7 years old approached U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein for anti-pollution political support, she told them “You didn’t vote for me.” Ignoring their reminder that government is supposed to be for the people, by the people.
The recent hunger strike and #extinctionrebellion protests against adding a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport is another sign young people feel environmental health is ignored by most elected government officials. Another sign children and other non-voters are worried policy decisions will make current pollution problems worse. Leaving them with no protection against an unhealthy future and ongoing species extinctions.
Quiet Society Activism
Since 2016, I’ve written articles and shared science-based info on community noise pollution. I’ve been told:
- Nobody cares
- Nobody cares about science
- It’s never going to change
- People aren’t smart enough to understand noise
- I’m dreaming if I think anything different will ever happen
- I should just give up
In the Fall of 2018, I stumbled across the charity Right to Quiet Society, right here in my own backyard of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Current members are from Canada. U.S., Austria, Germany, and China. The Quiet Society goals are noise awareness and education on:
- Protecting human rights to health, communication, and hearing disability access
- Protecting and conserving quiet habitats and wilderness for all species
The Right to Quiet Society volunteers say let’s work together as a team. They encourage me that every little bit helps.
I’m now a member, recently joined their Board of Directors, and am volunteering as Noise News Editor. I’m also excited to be the new Noise Education Coordinator. We’ve done a couple of events including an Earth Day 2019 Climate change, noise pollution, and species Quiz. We’re running a Community Soundscape Awareness Challenge and Survey for International Noise Awareness Day 2019. The challenge and survey are both open until the end of 2019.
I’m planning to develop free online noise learning lessons on how to measure community noise including community noise log forms. My top priority is publishing fully referenced free 2019 Noise Status Reports for different sound sources based on Environmental Noise Directive related updates and World Health Organization (2018). #1 Priority = Aircraft Noise. Everything will be based on international noise and public health guidelines including World Health Organization.
Everything will tie into planned beginner online noise learning lessons. I want everything accessible to people with normal hearing or quiet environment needs (hearing loss, tinnitus, hyperacusis, autism, history of concussion or head injury). Everything also has to be accessible for hard-of-hearing and Deaf community since unhealthy low frequency noise travels through walls and all humans whether they can hear it or not. I’d love to have reps from different communities to give input on our projects, and volunteers to help caption the educational content on our website that isn’t currently accessible (e.g. news post that includes 2 hour YouTube video on Noise in the City).
My problem currently is I have low vision, low hearing, and chronic pain and fatigue. I’m trying to do everything at once and it’s slow. I’m going to need people to help out in planned online focus groups to review informational and educational materials and help set priorities. I’m going to need beta testers for online noise learning lessons before they get launched to general public, especially from hard-of-hearing and Deaf community to make sure everything is accessible. I’d love to get help with planning events to raise awareness about need for safe sound levels in communities.
If you can help by volunteering a little bit of time, the Right to Quiet Society would like to hear from you. Currently, I expect the first materials and lessons will be ready in several months. If you can help me so process goes faster, please contact quiet.org.
What If Noise Control Never Happens
My partner asked me how I’ll feel if nothing changes. If governments keep letting noise risk get worse by allowing new airport runways or building residential dwellings beside major roads or highways. Expand transit or train systems with no consideration for infrastructure noise control. What if human rights violations continue with no action taken?
Will I feel like I wasted my time?
No. Because when children ask why authorities are doing nothing to control noise and protect their health, I’ll be able to look them in the eye.
I’ll be able to tell them, I’m trying to raise awareness about protecting their right to health and communication. I’m doing what I can to protect their right to live and learn in quiet communities, regardless of income level. To protect and conserve quiet habitats and wilderness soundscapes for all species, including humans.
If they want to give input or ask you for support and protection, what will you tell them?
Note this is my last blog at janlmayes.com on community noise pollution. If you’re still interested, come visit quiet.org.
Airport Noise Source Data:
- London airports: noise exposure contours on Ordnance Survey maps (2015). These maps were prepared for Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted airports by the Civil Aviation Authority on behalf of the UK Department for Transport. Published 26 September 2012. Last updated 12 January 2017.
- Dublin Ireland Transportation Noise Map
- Sydney Australia July 1, 2017-September 30, 2017 Noise Index Report p. 32 Attachment F
- Montreal Trudeau International, Canada p. 10: Average annual community noise levels
- U.S. airports National Transportation Noise Map
Jan L. Mayes
Author, audiologist, educator, quiet activist, playing with words.