Noise is not just a nuisance, it’s a growing public health hazard and action is long overdue.

That’s the message delivered at the November 2019 annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in Philadelphia, where doctors and other specialists identified evidence that “environmental noise” underlies a myriad of health problems reaching well beyond hearing loss.

The sources of this noise range widely, from aircraft takeoffs and landings, construction activity and loud music, to gas-powered lawn and garden equipment and widespread use of personal listening devices. The related health effects that were described include dementia, heart disease, diabetes, sleep disruption, and obesity, all brought about by the body’s reaction to noise-induced stress.

Dr. Leon Vinci, adjunct faculty at Drexel University and session moderator, opened the workshop by stating “there is a clear connection between excessive and unwanted noise with detriments to health and well-being.” The goals of the session were to raise awareness and issue a call to action.

Half the adult US population over age 60 “are impacted by a clinically meaningful hearing loss,” Dr. Jennifer Deal, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, reported, “and there is growing recognition that hearing loss is associated with dementia—with up to 9 percent of global dementia cases attributed to hearing loss.”

Dr. Mathias Basner, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, pointed also to the extent that unwanted noise contributes to cardiovascular disease. “While the effect of noise on cardiovascular disease risk is relatively small, it still constitutes an important public health problem as so many people are exposed to relevant noise levels,” he said. Sound insulation measures help mitigate some of the negative health effects of noise, but reducing noise at the source still makes the most sense.”

The title given to the APHA meeting session—“Environmental Noise: the New Second-Hand Smoke”—likened the problem to that which has prompted limits nationally on smoking tobacco in public places. Dr. Lucy Weinstein, co-chair of APHA’s Noise and Health Committee, said the reports give impetus to updating and acting on the organization’s 2013 noise policy statement that advocated federal action.

“The ways in which we define and measure noise contribute to [political] inattention to noise as a public health problem,” said Dr. Jamie Banks, executive director of Quiet Communities Inc. (QCI), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit educational and advocacy organization. Banks cited a revised definition offered by Dr. Daniel Fink, founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, a QCI program. This change would elevate the threshold followed by engineers and physicists from “unwanted noise” to “unwanted and/or harmful sound.”

Furthermore, present methods for measuring sound do not necessarily reflect the real-world impact of noise on health and communities, like low-frequency components in landscape, construction, and air traffic noise, Banks said. As an example, harmful noise from a gas-powered leaf blower carries a longer distance than that from a battery electric blower even though both are rated at the same decibel level. “We have the technology to better understand the noise characteristics that impact health and community– it’s time to employ it.”

Dr. Arline Bronzaft, a City University of New York professor emerita and longtime advocate for controlling urban noise, argued that mounting scientific and medical evidence demands action. She urged APHA members to renew support for the organization’s noise control policy published in 2013.

“The evidence on noise as a public health hazard was convincing 40 years ago,” Bronzaft said. “Now, despite even stronger evidence linking noise to adverse effects on hearing, the cardiovascular system, metabolism, and psychological health, learning, and cognition, we are not moving forward aggressively enough to reduce the many sources of noise pollution in our communities.”