Whether it’s a family argument in the apartment next door, a construction site on the way to work or gadgets that constantly demand our attention with a beep – noises, often loud and unpleasant ones, are part of everyday life. When and how this causes noise pollution, what risks noise pollution poses to health, what can be done about it and when it is time to have a hearing test is explained below.

What is noise pollution and where does it occur?

Every day we are confronted with noise that we perceive as a nuisance – sometimes more consciously, sometimes less consciously. Not all sounds are noise: birdsong, for example, the rustling of leaves in the wind or the sound of the sea are all pleasant to most people. On the other hand, relatively quiet sounds can also be disturbing, such as the keystrokes of a colleague on the computer who is happily typing while you are trying to read and understand a complex paper. The role of the listener is often the deciding factor in whether or not noise is perceived as a nuisance. Guests dancing at a lively party will probably love the loud music – but the neighbors may consider the sound to be noise, especially if it disturbs them while they sleep.

In our everyday lives, the main source of noise pollution is street noise, whether it’s approaching buses, honking cars or bicycle bells. Noise from construction sites is particularly stressful – just think of the proverbial jackhammer. But passers-by talking loudly, music coming from shops, caf├ęs and bars onto the pavement, or loudspeaker announcements that can be heard not only at the bus stop, also contribute to noise pollution. Anyone who lives within earshot of an airport, train station, port or motorway suffers even more from potentially health-endangering noise pollution.

In addition, we ourselves are responsible for a not inconsiderable part of the noise pollution that affects us – and not only when we expose ourselves to extremely loud music at an open-air festival or in a club. Smartphone ringtones, acoustic notification signals from desktops and laptops, or the television running in the background create a constant background noise that many people do not consciously notice, although it can also be detrimental to health. Last but not least, constant talking, calling or even screaming from other people also count as noise pollution, which particularly affects people in professions such as teachers or educators, but also employees in call centers and many other service professions.

Sick from noise pollution

Constant exposure to noise can make us ill – both physically and mentally. Both the hearing, which receives the acoustic stimuli, and the brain, in which they are processed, become overstimulated and permanently stressed by noise pollution. It is almost impossible to switch off when there is constant acoustic stimuli – we can close our eyes to avoid seeing something, but we cannot close our ears to avoid hearing something (at least not without external aids).

When it comes to the harmful effects of noise pollution, a distinction is made between

  • aural effects (hearing damage) and
  • extra-aural effects (effects outside the hearing on the entire organism).

Aural effects of noise pollution

One of the most well-known and serious health problems caused by noise pollution is hearing loss, although the degree of hearing impairment can vary. Whether you are affected can be determined quickly, easily and reliably by taking a hearing test carried out by experts. The hearing loss (which sometimes progresses gradually) is caused by too much noise – the cause can be either a one-off event with extreme sound peaks (for example, a firework exploding close to the ear) or continuous noise that is subjectively not perceived as being that loud, for example because you are constantly exposed to noise due to your job, such as in road construction.

Tinnitus can also be caused by such one-off or repeated sound events. In order to prevent hearing loss and other hearing damage, it is therefore absolutely necessary to follow occupational safety instructions and wear personal protective equipment. But extreme noise pollution can also occur in your free time – if you want to protect your hearing, it is best to wear appropriate hearing protection earplugs even at your favorite band’s concert.

Extra-aural effects of noise pollution

Constant noise causes constant overstimulation and strain of the hearing and brain. The consequences: lack of sleep, inner restlessness and constant stress, including all the associated negative effects on the body and psyche. Chronic stress leads to an increased release of stress hormones such as cortisol and can therefore affect blood pressure and heart rate. As a result, the development and/or progression of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, arteriosclerosis and heart attacks can be promoted.

Noise pollution also has a negative effect on mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety disorders. Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system and thereby increase susceptibility to infections and/or worsen the symptoms of existing underlying illnesses. Sudden hearing loss due to noise pollution can occur both as a direct aural effect and as a delayed stress reaction.

How can you protect yourself from noise pollution?

As mentioned above, you should ensure that you have appropriate hearing protection in all situations where you cannot avoid noise pollution. This counteracts the aural effects of noise and prevents hearing loss. But how can we protect ourselves from noise pollution that is not caused by excessively high sound levels and that we may not even consciously perceive as a burden? In other words, from ambient noise, the everyday “soundscape” that floods our brain with acoustic stimuli almost constantly?

Aids such as noise-cancelling headphones can be used to filter out noise. It is also helpful to take breaks from devices such as computers, tablets or smartphones in order to actively “switch off”. TV and radio should never be on in the background, but consumed consciously and in moderation. Yoga, meditation or other mindfulness exercises counteract sensory overload and promote conscious awareness of your own body and mind. Last but not least, a walk away from the city, perhaps even a forest bath, ensures that your hearing and brain can focus on soothing natural sounds such as birdsong, the babbling of a stream or the sound of the wind in the trees rather than on noise.

By the way: Excessive noise levels are harmful not only to people, but also to animals, whether wild animals, livestock or pets. For example, noise has a negative effect on the ability of birds to orientate themselves, which can lead to fatal accidents. For this reason, it is not only the responsibility of the individual, but also the duty of politicians and society to counteract increasing noise pollution. This can be done, for example, by setting up and expanding traffic-calmed zones and speed limits, as well as through structural measures such as the use of noise-reducing asphalt or planting greenery on buildings, which absorbs sound and thus reduces noise pollution.