Five Things You Can Do to Counter Traffic Noise
It may seem obvious that living near a busy road and inhaling a steady diet of exhaust fumes can’t be good for health. In truth, the dangers of living near traffic extend beyond breathing in what belching tailpipes put out. The constant noise from traffic streaming by also can lead to serious consequences. While it may be true that air pollution and noise pollution go hand in hand in heavily trafficked areas, it’s also true that noise pollution alone has detrimental effects.
Before we list the 5 things you can do to counter traffic noise, here are four ways noisy traffic can undermine your well-being:
1. Depression. According to a recent German study from the University Hospital Essen, constant exposure to traffic noise raises the risk of depression by 25%.1 That’s a surprisingly hefty margin. The study involved over 3000 people who had no depressive symptoms to start with and who were followed for at least five years. About one-third of the participants experienced constant exposure to traffic noise at a level over 55 decibels, which is about the level of noise you get in a typical crowded restaurant. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether the exposure was 24 hours a day or only at night—both scenarios led to elevated depression. Also, depression did not increase as noise level increased, and in fact, those in the loudest neighborhoods did not have the highest levels of depression. Rather, those who lived with constant exposure at 65 decibels fared the worst.
The researchers hypothesize that in the loudest neighborhoods, participants are more likely to do things to block the noise. In this study, the most affected participants were those who had insomnia, economic issues, were unemployed, or who smoked.
2. Elevated blood pressure. It’s long been known that people who live or work near busy roads have elevated stress levels as shown in their cortisol levels, adrenalin levels, and levels of other stress hormones. Numerous studies support this fact.2 Along the same lines, it appears that noise alone can significantly raise blood pressure.3 In fact, just a few months ago, the largest ever study confirmed this after following 41,000 people in five countries over a period of five years. The study, published in the European Heart Journal in October 2016, reported that traffic noise alone raised the risk of developing hypertension by 6%, even without considering the detrimental effects of noxious fumes. Add exhaust pollution to the mix, and the increased risk becomes truly startling. For every additional five micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, hypertension risk spikes by 22%. Considering that wherever there’s noise pollution from too many cars, there’s also going to be elevated particulate matter, and the risk is quite significant.
3. Increased risk of dementia. According to a gigantic study of 6.6 million people published in the Lancet, more than one out of 10 people who develop dementia may do so as a result of living close to heavy traffic.4 Although the study could not actually prove that the significant increase in dementia was directly due to exposure to excess traffic—those who live near heavily trafficked areas may have other unhealthy lifestyle habits that contribute, for instance—the link between living close to a busy road and developing dementia was certainly clear, and the scientists did control for economic status, education, and other relevant factors. More incriminating evidence comes from the fact that earlier studies found reduced density of white matter in the brains of those living on top of traffic. Another recent study found that particulate matter actually can penetrate brain tissue. It is unknown how much of a role is played by increased noise from traffic versus inhaling fumes, but the experts do hypothesize that noise, too, plays a role.
4. Increased risk of heart attack. A German study of over a million people this past year concluded that traffic noise alone elevates the risk of cardiovascular events, as well as the course and outcome of such events.5 Interestingly, the correlation was strictly restricted to noise from cars and trucks. Aircraft noise did not have a similar effect, probably because aircraft noise is intermittent and does not maintain a steady noise level above 65 decibels, whereas traffic noise does so. The research was conducted by an insurance company, meaning that an additional negative resulting from living near noisy traffic might be increased insurance premiums.
The above is by no means a comprehensive of all the bad things that can happen as a result of prolonged exposure to noisy traffic. Other research has found that traffic noise exposure correlates to midriff bulge, insomnia, and even early death.6 It’s important to keep in mind that even if you can’t see the road from your house, you might still be getting too much of an earful or lungful. While the classic advice is to reside at least 600 or so away from the road to avoid the worst of the pollutants, toxic elements like nitrogen oxide can travel as far as 1600 feet, and the problem is multiplied if the traffic is of the stop-and-go variety, as this type of traffic produces the most pollutants. And also consider that even if you reside in a pristine location, you might be getting the harmful effects of traffic noise during your daytime hours as an urban wage slave.
There are things you can do, though, if you’re stuck living or working too close to the highway:
1. For one thing, get a high-quality air filter.
2. For another, install a white noise machine.
3. And use earplugs if you must.
4. Do your exercise far away from traffic.
5. And remember to detox regularly.
- 1. Reinberg, Steven. “Constant Traffic Noise Made Boost Depression Risk.” 25 November 2015. WebMD. 11 January 2017. http://www.webmd.com/depression/news/20151125/constant-traffic-noise-may-boost-depression-risk
- 2. Simon. “6 Unfortunate Ways Traffic Noise Affects People (Research Findings).” 27 January 2014. Reflected On The Mind. http://reflectd.co/2014/01/27/6-unfortunate-ways-traffic-noise-affects-people/
- 3. “World’s largest study shows effect of long-term exposure to air pollution and traffic noise on blood pressure.” 25 October 2016. Science News. 13 January 2017.
- 4. Devlin, Hannah. “Living near heavy traffic increases risk of dementia, say scientists.” 5 January 2017. The
Guardian. 13 January 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jan/04/living-near-heavy-traffic-increases-dementia-risk-say-scientists
- 5. “Traffic noise increases the risk of heart attack.” 8 July 2016. Science Daily. 14 January 2007. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160708144914.htm
- 6. Knapton, Sarah. “Living near a noisy road raises risk of early death, warn UK scientists.” 24 July 2015. The Telegraph. 14 January 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/11694258/Living-near-a-noisy-road-raises-risk-of-early-death-warn-UK-scientists.html