Negative Health Effects of Noise

The perception of sounds in day-to-day life is of major importance for human well-being. Communication through speech, sounds from playing children, music, natural sound in parklands, parks and gardens are all examples of sounds essential for satisfaction in everyday life.

According to the International Programme on Chemical Safety in World Health Organization (1994), an adverse effect of noise is defined as a change in the morphology and physiology of an organism that results in impairment of functional capacity, or an impairment of capacity to compensate for additional stress, or increases the susceptibility of an organism to the harmful effects of other environmental influences.

This definition includes any temporary or long-term lowering of the physical, psychological or social functioning of humans or human organs.

Hearing Impairment Induced by Noise

Hearing impairment is typically defined as an increase in the threshold of hearing. It is assessed by threshold audiometry. Hearing handicap is the disadvantage imposed by hearing impairment sufficient to affect one‘s personal efficiency in the activities of daily living.

It is usually expressed in terms of understanding conventional speech in common levels of background noise (International Organization for Standardization (ISO, 1990). Worldwide, noise-induced hearing impairment is the most prevalent irreversible occupational hazard.

In the developing countries, not only occupational noise, but also environmental noise is an increasing risk factor for hearing impairment. In 1995, at the World Health Assembly, it was estimated that there are 120 million persons with disabling hearing difficulties worldwide (Smith 1998).

It has been shown that men and women are equally at risk of noise-induced hearing impairment (ISO 1990; Berglund & Lindvall 1995).

The ISO Standard 1999 (ISO 1990) gives a method for calculating noise-induced hearing impairment in populations exposed to all types of noise (continuous, intermittent, and impulse) during working hours. Noise exposure is characterized by LAeq over 8 hours (LAeq, 8h).

In the Standard, the relationships between LAeq,8h and noise-induced hearing impairment are given for frequencies of 500–6 000 Hz, and for exposure times of up to 40 years. These relations show that noise-induced hearing impairment occurs predominantly in the high-frequency range of 3000–6 000 Hz, the effect being largest at 4 000 Hz.

Negative Health Effects of Noise

With increasing LAeq,8h and increasing exposure time, noise-induced hearing impairment also occurs at 2 000 Hz. But at LAeq, 8h levels of 75 dBA and lower, even prolonged occupational noise exposure will not result in noise- induced hearing impairment (ISO 1990).

The ISO Standard 1999 (ISO 1990) specifies hearing impairment in statistical terms (median values, and percentile fractions between 0.05 and 0.95). The extent of noise-induced hearing impairment in populations exposed to occupational noise depends on the value of LAeq, 8h and the number of years of noise exposure.

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However, for high LAeq,8h values, individual susceptibility seems to have a considerable effect on the rate of progression of hearing impairment. For daily exposures of 8–16 h, noise-induced hearing impairment can be reasonably well estimated from LAeq, 8h extrapolated to the longer exposure times (Axelsson et al. 1986).

In this adaptation of LAeq,8h for daily exposures other than 8 hours, the equal energy principle is assumed to be applicable. For example, the hearing impairment due to a 16 h daily exposure is equivalent to that at LAeq,8h plus 3 dB (LAeq,16h = LAeq,8h + 10*log10 (16/8) = LAeq,8h + 3 dB. For a 24 h exposure, LAeq,24h = LAeq,8h + 10*log10 (24/8) = LAeq,8h + 5 dB).

Another sensory effect that results from noise exposure is tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Commonly, tinnitus is referred to as sounds that are emitted by the inner ear itself (physiological tinnitus).

Tinnitus is a common and often disturbing accompaniment of occupational hearing impairment (Vernon and Moller 1995) and has become a risk for teenagers attending pop concerts and discotheques (Hetu & Fortin 1995; Passchier-Vermeer et al. 1998; Axelsson & Prasher 1999).

Noise-induced tinnitus may be temporary, lasting up to 24 hours after exposure, or may have a more permanent character, such as after prolonged occupational noise exposure. Sometimes tinnitus is due to the sound produced by the blood flow through structures in the ear.

Interference with Speech Communication

Noise interference with speech comprehension results in a large number of personal disabilities, handicaps and behavioral changes.

Problems with concentration, fatigue, uncertainty and lack of self-confidence, irritation, misunderstandings, decreased working capacity, problems in human relations, and a number of stress reactions have all been identified (Lazarus 1998).

Particularly vulnerable to these types of effects are the hearing impaired, the elderly, children in the process of language and reading acquisition, and individuals who are not familiar with the spoken language (e.g., Lazarus 1998). Thus, vulnerable persons constitute a substantial proportion of a country‘s population.

Most of the acoustical energy of speech is in the frequency range 100–6 000 Hz, with the most important cue-bearing energy being between 300–3 000 Hz. Speech interference is basically a masking process in which simultaneous, interfering noise renders speech incapable of being understood.

The higher the level of the masking noise, and the more energy it contains at the most important speech frequencies, the greater will be the percentage of speech sounds that become indiscernible to the listener.

Speech levels vary between individuals because of factors such as gender and vocal effort. Moreover, outdoor speech levels decrease by about 6 dB for a doubling in the distance between talker and listener.

Speech intelligibility in everyday living conditions is influenced by speech level, speech pronunciation, talker-to-listener distance, sound pressure levels, and to some extent other characteristics of interfering noise, as well as room characteristics (e.g. reverberation).

Individual capabilities of the listener, such as hearing acuity and the level of attention of the listener, are also important for the intelligibility of speech.

Speech communication is affected also by the reverberation characteristics of the room. For example, reverberation times greater than 1s produce loss in speech discrimination. Longer reverberation times, especially when combined with high background interfering noise, make speech perception more difficult.

Sleep Disturbance

Uninterrupted sleep is known to be a prerequisite for good physiological and mental functioning of healthy persons (Hobson 1989); sleep disturbance, on the other hand, is considered to be a major environmental noise effect.

It is estimated that 80-90% of the reported cases of sleep disturbance in noisy environments are for reasons other than noise originating outdoors. For example, sanitary needs; indoor noises from other occupants; worries; illness; and climate (e.g. Reyner and Horne 1995).

The primary sleep disturbance effects are: difficulty in falling asleep (increased sleep latency time); awakenings; and alterations of sleep stages or depth, especially a reduction in the proportion of REM-sleep (REM = rapid eye movement) (Hobson 1989).

Other primary physiological effects can also be induced by noise during sleep, including increased blood pressure; increased heart rate; increased finger pulse amplitude; vasoconstriction; changes in respiration; cardiac arrhythmia; and an increase in body movements (cf. Berglund and Lindvall 1995).

For each of these physiological effects, both the noise threshold and the noise-response relationships may be different. Different noises may also have different information content and this also could affect physiological threshold and noise-response relationships (Edworthy 1998).

Exposure to night-time noise also induces secondary effects, or so-called after effects. These are effects that can be measured the day following the night-time exposure, while the individual is awake.

The secondary effects include reduced perceived sleep quality; increased fatigue; depressed mood or well-being; and decreased performance (Öhrström 1993a; Passchier-Vermeer 1993; Carter 1996; Pearsons et al. 1995; Pearsons 1998).

Noise annoyance during the night-time increased the total noise annoyance expressed by people in the following 24 hours. Various studies have also shown that people living in areas exposed to night-time noise have an increased use of sedatives or sleeping pills.

Other frequently reported behavioral effects of night-time noise include closed bedroom windows and use of personal hearing protection. Sensitive groups include the elderly, shift workers, persons especially vulnerable to physical or mental disorders and other individuals with sleeping difficulties.

Questionnaire data indicate the importance of night-time noise on the perception of sleep quality. A Japanese investigation was conducted for 3 600 women (20–80 years old) living in eight roadside zones with different road traffic noise.

The results showed that four measures of perceived sleep quality (difficulty in falling asleep; waking up during sleep; waking up too early; feelings of sleeplessness one or more days a week) correlated significantly with the average traffic volumes during night-time.

An in-depth investigation of 19 insomnia cases and their matched controls (age, work) measured outdoor and indoor sound pressure levels during sleep (Kageyama et al. 1997). The study showed that road traffic noise in excess of 30 dB LAeq for nighttime induced sleep disturbance, consistent with the results of Öhrström (1993b).

Special attention should also be given to the following considerations:

Noise sources in an environment with a low background noise level. For example, night-traffic in suburban residential areas.

Environments where a combination of noise and vibrations are produced. For example, railway noise, heavy duty vehicles.

Sources with low-frequency components. Disturbances may occur even though the sound pressure level during exposure is below 30 dBA.

Cardiovascular and Physiological Effects

Epidemiological and laboratory studies involving workers exposed to occupational noise, and general populations (including children) living in noisy areas around airports, industries and noisy streets, indicate that noise may have both temporary and permanent impacts on physiological functions in humans.

It has been postulated that noise acts as an environmental stressor. Acute noise exposures activate the autonomic and hormonal systems, leading to temporary changes such as increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and vasoconstriction.

After prolonged exposure, susceptible individuals in the general population may develop permanent effects, such as hypertension and ischaemic heart disease associated with exposures to high sound pressure levels (for a review see Passchier-Vermeer 1993; Berglund & Lindvall 1995).

The magnitude and duration of the effects are determined in part by individual characteristics, lifestyle behaviors and environmental conditions. Sounds also evoke reflex responses, particularly when they are unfamiliar and have a sudden onset.

Mental Health Effects

Mental health is defined as the absence of identifiable psychiatric disorders according to current norms (Freeman 1984).

Environmental noise is not believed to be a direct cause of mental illness, but it is assumed that it accelerates and intensifies the development of latent mental disorder.

Studies on the adverse effects of environmental noise on mental health cover a variety of symptoms, including anxiety; emotional stress; nervous complaints; nausea; headaches; instability; argumentativeness; sexual impotency; changes in mood; increase in social conflicts, as well as general psychiatric disorders such as neurosis, psychosis and hysteria.

Large-scale population studies have suggested associations between noise exposure and a variety of mental health indicators, such as single rating of well-being; standard psychological symptom profiles; the intake of psychotropic drugs; and consumption of tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

The Effects of Noise on Performance

It has been documented in both laboratory subjects and in workers exposed to occupational noise, that noise adversely affects cognitive task performance. Laboratory and workplace studies showed that noise can act as a distracting stimulus. Also, impulsive noise events (e.g. sonic booms) may produce disruptive effects as a result of startle responses.

In the short term, noise- induced arousal may produce better performance of simple tasks, but cognitive performance deteriorates substantially for more complex tasks (i.e. tasks that require sustained attention to details or to multiple cues; or tasks that demand a large capacity of working memory, such as complex analytical processes).

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Some of the effects are related to loss in auditory comprehension and language acquisition, but others are not (Evans & Maxwell 1997). Among the cognitive effects, reading, attention, problem solving and memory are most strongly affected by noise.

The observed effects on motivation, as measured by persistence with a difficult cognitive task, may either be independent or secondary to the aforementioned cognitive impairments.

For aircraft noise, it has been shown that chronic exposure during early childhood appears to impair reading acquisition and reduces motivational capabilities. Of recent concern are concomitant psychophysiological changes (blood pressure and stress hormone levels).

Evidence indicates that the longer the exposure, the greater the damage. It seems clear that daycare centers and schools should not be located near major sources of noise, such as highways, airports and industrial sites.

In summary, acute noise exposures activate the autonomic and hormonal systems. Environmental noise is not believed to be a direct cause of mental illness, but it is assumed that it accelerates and intensifies the development of latent mental disorder. Noise-induced tinnitus may be temporary, lasting up to 24 hours after exposure.

Noise interference with speech comprehension results in a large number of personal disabilities, handicaps and behavioral changes. Noise annoyance during the night-time increased the total noise annoyance expressed by people in the following 24 hours. Laboratory and workplace studies showed that noise can act as a distracting stimulus.

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Benadine Nonye

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