What is noise pollution and what can you do about it?

Stop for a minute. Turn off the TV. Take off your headphones. What do you hear? If you hear nothing but natural sounds — birds, water, bees buzzing, then you’re either very lucky or your brain is doing its utmost not to hear the everyday noise of the human-made world.

And our brains are very good at this. Walk into a room with a smelly dog and you’ll probably wrinkle your nose at first, but give it a while and nose blindness will kick in. The same happens with sounds and noise. But even if we can’t ‘hear’ them they are still having an effect on our bodies and our wellbeing. A WHO study indicates that one million healthy years of life are lost every year due to traffic noise in western Europe alone. One million healthy years of life!

And guess who is more likely to live in areas with higher levels of noise pollution? Yep, people with lower socioeconomic status and other disadvantaged groups.

What is noise pollution?

We hear a lot about air pollution, with good reason. Interestingly many of the things that cause air pollution also cause noise pollution — cars, planes, factories — they do a real number on the environment around them.

Excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour. World Health Organization (WHO)

Last week the UK and Europe literally burned in a record-breaking heatwave. As per the advice I kept my windows and curtains shut during the day to keep out the worst of the heat. In the late evening, when it finally cooled a bit, I opened the windows and was greeted by the sound of lawnmowers. Who the f*ck is mowing their lawn when it was still 30+ degrees. Why the f*ck would you mow what is essentially now straw due to the climate crisis-induced heatwave. This action was unnecessary and showed a distinct lack of consideration for their neighbours. I shut the windows and swore and sweated a lot.

Noise pollution is harming the environment. Noise pollution is harming human health. It can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus. It creates stress in the body leading to cardiovascular disease. It reduces children’s ability to learn. It affects sleep patterns — a big one for me, and trust me the world doesn’t need me getting less sleep.

Noise pollution needs to be a political issue. It needs to be a priority in every political party manifesto. Environmental groups need to talk about it more. Reducing or changing the things that make noise will have a positive impact on the climate crisis.

But what can I do about it?

First of all, listen. Listen for the good sounds, the birds singing, the arrival of bees in spring. Not only are these sounds good for your wellbeing, they also need someone listening out for them so that if they are impacted by human behaviour someone notices and does something about it.

Other practical things you can do include:

  • Stop flying — that’s it. We all know we need to stop doing that shit.
  • Ditch the car if/ when you can — walk, cycle or use (quiet) public transport instead. And no, electric cars aren’t silent. The engines might not roar like a diesel or petrol engine, but the noise they create when travelling on the road is just the same.
  • Campaign for low-traffic neighbourhoods and lower speed limits in your area.
  • Dig up your lawn and replace it with herbs and pollinator-friendly plants = no more lawn mower or strimmer. I did this and the increase in bees, birds and butterflies has been amazing. Plus we saved £150 on replacing our broken lawnmower.
  • Talk to your local council or government — make them understand that this is an important issue. Make them consider noise pollution whenever they approve a new housing estate or road. Perhaps instead of a new road, they could improve the walking and cycling infrastructure?

These suggestions link closely to noises that I feel impact my life. You might have other noises that you feel are more urgent to rid your environment of. One person I follow on Twitter would love to see the end of leaf blowers. Why not buy a rake and broom instead — that way you also get a workout.

It’s time to get noisy about noise.

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