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Impact of noise on health: The divide between policy and science

Abstract —
In her chapter “Sources of Noise” in Noise and Health [New York Academy of Medicine, 1991], Annette Zaner writes that sounds have been environmental pollutants for thousands of years, citing examples of stories of loud music in the Old Testament and noisy delivery wagons in ancient times. The Industrial Revolution and urbanization in more recent times raised the decibel levels in our communities, especially with the growth in transportation on the roads, on the rails and in the air, as well as the growth of noise polluting products. The proliferation of boom cars, cell phones and wind turbines during the past twenty years has made our world even noisier. Studies have been carried out that have demonstrated the potential impact of these noises on our mental and physical health, and there have been some efforts to lessen some of the intrusive sounds, e.g. aircraft and road traffic noise, but there is still too little attention paid to the deleterious effects of noise. While noise complaints top the list of complaints in major cities worldwide and noise even threatens the natural sound systems of our planet, there is no movement globally to address the noise pollutant. The following paper will examine the research linking noise to health effects, question why governments have not seriously attempted to lower noise levels and suggest ways to lessen the din. Doing so will not only be beneficial to our health and well-being but it would also be wise economically.

Arline L. Bronzaft
Professor Emerita, City University of New York

Open Journal of Social Sciences 2017; 5: 108-120.
doi: 10.4236/jss.2017.55008 [1]

Download original document: “Impact of noise on health: The divide between policy and science [2]

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[T]he literature supporting the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health has grown in the last fifteen years, underscoring the need to move ahead with federal noise legislation. …

When Dr. Nina Pierpont wrote her book reporting her findings of vertigo, dizziness, sleep disturbance and other physiological disturbances in a group of 38 residents living near wind turbines, she was widely criticized for a very limited, less than scientific study [Wind Turbine Syndrome, K-Selected Books, 2009]. Dr. Pierpont’s study calls for replication but it should not have been dismissed. In science we start with exploratory research on small numbers and then we move on to studies with larger numbers and greater control of the variables. For example, in the New York Times article on December 15th 2016, entitled “Your Brain Versus ‘Harold’,” the author reports on a study relating fitness to thinking in older people that had been conducted on sixty older men. The article indicates that further research is needed but still gives credence to the results reported. One obvious shortcoming of the study is that it only included male subjects but the author of this article in the introductory paragraph generalizes the findings to all “older people.” The New York Times in its Tuesday Science section frequently reports findings of studies with small numbers and less than ideal control as does the mass media. The findings of these studies are suggestive, although treated more seriously in the media, and should lead to further research. Dr. Pierpont’s study also should be a call for additional research exploring the relationship between wind turbine sounds and visual effects and health impacts.

In chapter 5 of Why Noise Matters there is a discussion of several studies that have found that people get more annoyed by wind turbines than noise from road traffic and other industrial sounds. Why Noise Matters concludes that noise need not stop the development of onshore wind turbines, especially if carefully located, but unless the noise issue is seriously addressed, it will harm people and curb the development. Garret Keiser in his book The Unwanted Sound of Everything [Public Affairs, 2010] states that the “noise effects of wind turbines have been routinely denied by ignorant or unscrupulous developers,” supporting his conclusion with studies affirming this statement as well as his experiences personally visiting residents in Maine who described to him the impacts that nearby wind turbines had on their lives.