The Noise Pollution Project, An Issue of Environmental Justice for Underserved Communities

by Teresa Helgeson and Makeda Dread

What is Noise Pollution?

Noise pollution is also known as ‘sound pollution’ or ‘environmental noise’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines noise pollution as, “annoying or harmful noise (such as of automobiles or jet airplanes) in an environment.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared noise as a pollutant in 1972. Since then, noise pollution has been considered one of the main sources of pollution.  In spite of this, the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (which operated under the EPA) was defunded in 1981, during the Reagan administration. Since then, the US government has been reluctant to focus on the issue of noise pollution.

Basically, noise pollution comes from three different sources:

  • Industrial Pollution – which consists of heavy machinery used at construction sites, mining equipment, drilling equipment, generators, grinders, road repair equipment and mills just to name a few.
  • Transportation Noise – which includes automobiles, airplanes, trains and mass transit.  Automobile noise is increased due to poor urban planning, which leads to traffic jams and other compounding problems.
  • Neighborhood Noise – consisting of loud music, electronics, sporting events, concerts, political rallies, household appliances and electronics, parties and outdoor fairs, etc.

Why is Noise Pollution a Concern?

The human ear is extremely sensitive.  During our waking hours, it is always working.  As such is a constantly open channel for auditory information. Our body responds in different ways to constant noise like background noises that we become accustomed to. Even when we are sleeping the ear is filtering sounds that get processed by the brain that can raise blood pressure and heart rate. Loud sounds can cause inner ear damage and permanent hearing loss, which makes conversation and daily activities more difficult.

Excessive or prolonged exposure to noise can cause a variety of health problems. Studies on noise pollution indicate that it has implications in adverse health conditions, such as: high blood pressure, hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing), sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and decreased productivity in adults. In children, high levels of noise can negatively impact their physical and psychological health as well as their behavior and ability to learn.

A letter written by the Board Chairman of the Quiet Coalition in response to an article which the New York Times published in July 2017 states, “Noise isn’t just a nuisance. It is also a health hazard, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, hyperacusis (an intolerance of normal sound levels) and non-auditory health effects: increases in stress hormones, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death.”

A report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011 states, “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the population.” The WHO ranked traffic noise as ‘second’ among environmental threats to public health – the first being air pollution.

Who is at Risk?

Underserved Communities

The Environmental Health Perspectives journal published a study in 2017 that focused on the distinction between exposure to environmental pollutants and ethnic, racial and economic factors. Joan Casey, the lead author of the study stated, “We’ve known that poor communities and communities of color are likely more exposed to toxic landfills and air pollution, but until now we really have not heard much about noise pollution.” The UC Berkley researchers discovered a direct correlation between noise pollution exposure and demographics by analyzing ethnic neighborhoods around the country. The study showed noise levels were consistently higher in predominantly Asian, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. High levels of noise exposure existed in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and low levels of education. Co-author of the study Rachel Morello-Frosch stated, “This is yet another study that shows that communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of pollution.”

Workplace Exposure

Employees who are constantly exposed to loud noises are at high risk of developing hearing loss, tinnitus, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Truck motors and exhaust systems provide the majority of noise pollution on the highways, which puts truck and mass transit drivers at risk. Other industries with high rates of noise pollution include the aircraft, railroad, construction and the manufacturing industry.

Birds

A study published in January 2018 examined the effects of 240 avian nesting sites that were surrounded by natural gas facilities (consisting of gas wells and compression stations) in northern New Mexico.  This study sought to determine what long-term impact that human-created noise may have on birds. Their findings were nothing less than phenomenal. It was proven that those birds who nested closest to the noise of natural gas facilities displayed symptoms equivalent to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in humans. It was more difficult for the birds to hear approaching predators as well as normal sounds which causes them to exist in a state of hyper-vigilance. Baby birds grew up smaller in size and with a decreased amounts of feathers, thus causing the survival rate of chicks to decline. Essentially, the study proved that noise pollution has a direct impact on abnormal levels of stress hormones and lower survival rates in birds.

Plants

Everything in our world is connected and what affects one also affects another.  Plants and trees rely on animals to transport pollen from one flower to the next as well as spread seeds their seeds. These animal-functions are necessary to the survival of plants, ensuring their continuity as a species.

The aforementioned bird study also provided some insightful information on how the noise-related behavioral changes of the Western Scrub-Jay population affected the Pinon Pine trees. The Pinon Pine trees rely on the Jay population to spread its seeds by taking thousands of seeds and hiding them in the ground to eat later. The unrecovered seeds will sprout.  However, the Western Scrub Jay avoided the high noise areas, which means the fewer Pinon Pine trees will grow in those areas studied. It takes decades for a Pinon Pine tree to grow from seedling to a full grown tree and fewer seedlings mean fewer mature trees. This example demonstrates how the results of noise pollution can make a detrimental impact on the environment that will last for decades.

What is the Noise Pollution Project?

Thanks to a grant by the National Science Foundation, WorldBeat Cultural Center and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are partnering with other Community Based Organizations that represent underserved communities throughout North America such as Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, CLUES and the Camp Compass Academy. The intention is to study community perspectives about noise pollution so we can create a national Community Science project and App that benefits our communities.

How can a Noise Refuge Space help?

It is evident from completed scientific studies that neighborhoods of color are at the highest risk to be affected by noise pollution. This means they are at a higher risk for adverse health conditions like hearing loss, tinnitus, cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, depression, diabetes and death. WorldBeat Center intends to create a Noise Refuge Space as part of its Community Science Garden. The intent of the Noise Refuge Space is to provide a safe haven away from noise pollution for at-risk communities. The Noise Refuge Space may also be called a Sound Sanctuary. The Sound Sanctuary environment will consist of a wildlife habitat with plants, birds and projections soothing sounds that are known to decrease the adverse effects of noise pollution.

The public community is welcome to visit WorldBeat Center’s Garden.  We believe that visiting our garden will bring the benefits of Shinrin-yoku. Shinrin-yoku means “taking-in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Shinrin-yoku was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Now their research is helping to establish Shinrin-yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.

The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.

We have always known this intuitively. But in the past several decades there have been many scientific studies that are demonstrating the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas. (Some of this research is available here.) For example, many trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer. The scientifically-proven benefits of Shinrin-yoku include: boosted immune system functioning and an increase in the count of the body’s NK cells, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improvement in mood, increased ability to focus (even in children with ADHD), accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level and improved sleep.

By providing a safe haven that helps alleviate the adverse effects of noise pollution, WorldBeat Cultural Center will assist in improving the health of the underserved communities we represent.


Berenice Rodriguez

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