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Noise can be Harmful to your Health

I write this article with the aim of highlighting some of the main causes of preventable deafness or hearing impairment and apart from some general observations I have not given any examples of how to protect your hearing. However, many of them should be self-evident.

For the past seven months I have listened to builders renovate the apartment building, six days a week, twelve hours a day. Thus, it seems appropriate to focus this article on one of the major avoidable causes of hearing loss: Noise Induced Hearing Loss or NIHL. It is estimated by The World Health Organization (WHO) that avoidable hearing loss costs developed countries between 0.2 and 2 percent of their total GDP. In a study carried out by various researchers in the USA the estimated costs to society is $300,000 for just one person during his or her lifetime. (1)

Obviously NIHL is not the only problem we face; age-related hearing loss (Presbycusis) is an entirely natural phenomenon which affects many people as they get older, it causes hearing loss due to a gradual deterioration of the hair cells in the cochlea, which can make it difficult for people to hear higher frequency sounds — especially within the vocal range, though it is not thought to cause major damage except in the very old. Nonetheless, a study on a tribe of Mabaan Africans in the Sudan showed very little hearing loss due to the affects of aging. Africans at the age of sixty had as good or better hearing than the average North American at the age of twenty-five. (2)

Moreover, many of the same symptoms caused by NIHL can be attributed to Presbycusis. Unfortunately this has often meant that workers have not received compensation, as companies have successfully argued that Presbycusis and not NIHL is the main cause for the worker’s hearing impairment. (3) It is now known that the effects of NIHL and Presbycusis are additive which means it is far more likely to do serious damage to your hearing if steps are not taken at an early age to protect your ears.

It is worthwhile quoting a report by the WHO verbatim:

Exposure to noise is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing impairment worldwide. In a developed country, it is at least partially the cause of more than one third of those with hearing impairment and, in many countries, is the biggest compensatable occupational hazard. As the risk from occupational noise begins to decrease in developed countries, that from social noise is increasing for young people. In developing countries, occupational noise and urban, environmental noise are increasing risk factors for hearing impairment. As populations live longer and industrialisation spreads, NIHL will add substantially to the global burden of disability, and hence has a high public health priority. (4)

Noise pollution has existed in some form or other for hundreds of years and for almost as long, those in power have sought to curb the effects of noise: the Romans prohibited carts from moving at specific times of the day and through the ages governments and councils have enacted laws prohibiting certain sounds or noises that caused disturbances to the populations they governed; town criers, hawkers and even the night watchman were banned from making noise at certain times of the day. However, throughout the period before the industrial revolution it was still possible to hear much more of the soundscape. (5) All that changed with the advent of the industrial revolution, urban and industrial noise morphed dramatically. Industrialisation meant vast incomes for the factory owners; noise was simply a by-product that could not be avoided. It wasn’t until relatively recently that governments and councils began to order factories owners and corporations to provide adequate hearing protection and to ensure that the machinery was at least a little quieter. (In Austria guidelines were first introduced in 1986 on noise abatement in the workplace, but even then it was secondary and not primary legislation. [6])

In Europe more than 450 million people live with an average of 55 dB(A) at any given time of day or night. (7) Whilst this is considered to be well under the threshold that can cause physical damage to your ears it has other effects such as irritability, stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and in some cases even heart disease. (8) Given the nature of and the stigma associated with hearing loss it seems absurd that more is not done to ensure a quieter environment in which to work and live. It took several years of debate for the EU to come to a consensus concerning noise pollution. What transpired was an EU directive (2002) slowly bringing into force many rules and regulations designed to protect the population. For example, in Austria they have been building hundreds of kilometres of “sound-barriers” which are designed to reduce the amount of noise generated by motorways and the railway. Clearly, the barriers only work if you are level with or below them.

The barriers have the effect of deadening the sound so that pitch is practically indiscernible. What one is left with is white noise (the sound is similar to that experienced aboard a jet aircraft). Whilst walking through one of Vienna’s largest parks at the weekend it took me sometime to realise that the relative peace was being disturbed, only to look up and see a motorway that cuts through the middle of a park. Once I had recognised the source, it was easily heard almost anywhere in the park.

In 2006, the Health and Safety Executive in England strengthened the rules concerning noise in the work place and the upper limit was reduced to 85 dB(A) (which is recommended by the WHO) and the lower limit to 80 dB(A) and an exposure limit level was put in place at 87 dB(A) with peaks from 135–140 dB(A) above which no worker can be exposed, (without adequate hearing protection). (9) Interestingly, it is recommended that workers should only spend 4 hours a day working where the level is 88 dB(A) and that exposure to 88 dB(A) for 8 hours a day will result in twice the exposure, which may cause hearing loss. (10)

In Austria, the rules are similar but the government also gives information for the amount of allowable noise in housing, hospitals, and offices, the maximum level begins at 50 dB(A) and increases to 65 dB(A) in offices. (11) In a European Commission Green Paper on Future Noise Policy, it states that traffic noise alone costs countries huge amounts of money. In a study of 17 different member nations it is estimated that the cost of noise is approximately 0.65 percent GDP or 38 billion ECU (European Currency Unit). As I have previously said, the paper also points out that exposure to traffic noise will not normally cause NIHL but that it can cause many other symptoms. Between 7 and 22 percent of European citizens are believed to be living with constant noise from traffic that is unacceptable and about 170 million are thought to be living with noise that causes serious annoyance on a daily basis. (12)

Part of the EU directive aims to reduce the speed of traffic on the motorways. This would have a twofold effect: firstly it would reduce petrol costs; secondly, it would reduce the amount of noise generated by all forms of vehicles. However, many people in Austria protested against the new speed restrictions with the result being that on some motorways the limit was returned to its former 130 kmh.

Noise created by all forms of transport as described above, together with other forms of urban or ‘social noise’ should now pose the biggest cause for concern in developed countries. The young are said to be particularly at risk from social noise. The “mp3” generation blast music into their ears that can easily damage hearing: The Royal Institute for the Deaf found that 51 percent of people in the UK aged 18–24 listen to their mp3 players for more than an hour a day and that 19.7 percent listen to their mp3 players for over 21 hours a week often with no idea as to the damage it can cause. (13) Night-clubbing is also very much in fashion and is also cause for unease. I was talking to one of my students last week (she is sixteen), I asked her if she has ever experienced ringing in her ears after listening to music. She replied that she had but had no idea what it was or that she could be damaging her hearing and perhaps this is a reason why the young are so at risk, as there seems to be no formal education on the effects of NIHL within the school system. The same was the case for me: “loud music equals good, quiet equals bad.”

Even for electroacoustic composers who all outwardly, at least, do the utmost to protect their hearing, at times find it necessary to increase the volume to such an extent that it is not uncommon to see members of the audience wearing earplugs or sitting with their fingers in their ears! It seems that even we are susceptible to the lure of “loud equals good”. Perhaps the problem is also due to the ambient noise in every major city increasing year upon year. And since many switch off this background noise without even realising they are doing it to get a sense of “loud” music, do composers/artists then increase the volume exponentially?

Until noise pollution is given as much attention and media coverage as other forms of pollution it will continue to pose a serious problem for the world both in developed countries and in developing countries. For example, in many industries cost reduction and profit often override that of the employee’s health and well-being. To give a few examples, for every doubling of speed of a diesel engine results in an increase of 9 dB, for petrol engines 15 dB, and fans between 19 and 24 dB. (14) This is of particular concern to developing countries, where rules and regulations on the prevention of noise are often only loosely adhered to. (15)

A few years ago I read The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer. He describes giving an exercise to his students, where he asked them to list five sounds that they heard in the morning that are not music. I have done the same exercise countless times with university students studying music, children at workshops and with highly paid business executives. The results have always been the same; children, it seems, are more in tune with their sonic environment and can easily complete the exercise whilst adults often find the task difficult, if not impossible to complete. Often I get vague answers such as, “I heard some birds,” or “I heard a bus.” When I ask the question “which bird” or “what did it sound like?”, they are normally unable to answer. So perhaps they only saw the bird or the bus and didn’t really register it with their ears?

This I believe to be the heart of the problem. We are experts at shutting out the soundscape in which we live, and why not? If we actually registered on a conscious level all that we heard our lives would be infinitely more stressful. Yet those sounds we shut out are causing harm. The brain must work constantly to filter out all the unwanted noise and even when sleeping our brain continues to filter out that which is not important or would cause distraction.

Conversely, my partner and many of our friends are not able to sit in a room without turning the TV or radio on (just to have it in the background). On the one hand we can’t abide noise if it is adversely affecting us, and on the other, it seems we need some kind of background noise to block out our thoughts, fears or problems.

It is only within the last few years that governments have begun to act more stringently to curb the amount of noise that exists in the environment and the workplace, much however, still needs to be done. Such strategies as building sound-barriers along motorways changing the type of seal used on roads and the types of tyres for cars and lorries can and do help. The problem is that car ownership continues to increase which has in many cases offset the benefits and just recently, it was reported that freight transported by lorry has also increased by as much as 25 percent in some countries within the European Union. This coupled with the ever-increasing demands on infrastructure and problems associated with social noise means that unless much more dramatic changes are made and not simply applying a “band aid” to the problem; hearing-related illnesses and disabilities will almost certainly continue to place an ever greater strain on society.


  1. P.E. Mohr et al, “The Societal Costs of Severe to Profound Hearing Loss in the United States” in The International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 16/4 (Autumn 2000), pp. 1120–35.
  2. R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of The World (McClelland and Stewart Ltd.), 1977.
  3. “Before the Workers Compensation Board.” Last Accessed 9 June 2007. This is but one of many examples I have found on the internet.
  4. World Health Organization, “Prevention of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss,” 1997. Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  5. Schafer, The Tuning of The World.
  6. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, “Noise and Nuisance Policy.” Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  7. Hear-it, “Europe Goes to Battle Against Noise.” Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  8. Barry Truax (ed.), Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (Vancouver: World Soundscape Project), 1999 (CD-Rom): Noise Pollution.
  9. Health and Safety Executive website. Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  10. Hear-it, “Daily Exposure to Noise,”
  11. Arbeitsinspektion. Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  12. European Commission Green Paper on “Future Noise Policy.” Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  13. Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, “RNID Calls for more Prominent Warnings on MP3 Player Packaging,” 4 September 2006. Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  14. World Health Organization, “Occupational and community noise.” Last Accessed 9 June 2007.
  15. “Prevention of Noise-induced Hearing Loss,” WHO.

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