August 5, 2013

We’re so Used to Noise, We Forget How Much Stress It’s Causing Us. ~ Judy Petersen

The Not-so-silent Killer

Ten minutes at the gate and another 10 on the runway forced me to shove my little fingers into my ears. I tried breathing and meditating, but the noise generated discomfort and was too overpowering. Plus, my ear plugs were in a carry-on compartment elsewhere in the small plane. My solution provided some relief from the nausea and distress that had seeped into my body, but my arms and shoulders were very tired after plugging my ears for yet another 20 minutes.

As each day passed during my visit to the Midwest, I increasingly noticed city and countryside sound levels that I assumed were non-compliant in other countries (e.g., loud music in malls and stores, far-away sirens and trains, and beeping on backing-up vehicles). I’m not opposed to these sounds/alarms; I believe that they must exist for their intended purposes. I just can’t help but wonder if they could be quieter and still be heard.

Culprits and consequences

Shortly after returning to Sweden, this headline in a national daily shattered my assumption: “This type of noise bothers us most”. Of the 162 noise complaints that were filed in Stockholm so far this year, these are the top three culprits: (1.) permanent installations such as elevators, fans and ventilation; (2.) bars and restaurants with outdoor service; and (3.) traffic.

Another article in the same edition reported that disturbing noise is a health hazard that can cause stress and/or insomnia, which in turn can lead to morbidity such as metabolic syndrome, among other mental and physical complaints. Research articles and a recent Swedish environmental health report confirm this. The report listed these and other situations in which disturbing noise and high volume levels can trigger tinnitus, impair hearing and lead to health problems in fetuses, infants, children and adults:

  • School classrooms, cafeterias and gyms; recreation/leisure centers; playgrounds.

  • Concerts; listening to high volume music in headphones; practicing/playing certain instruments.

  • Apartment complexes that (1.) have the permanent installations mentioned above and (2.) are located near highly trafficked streets/constructions sites.

  • Large one-room (landscape) offices without cubicles to absorb sound.

  • Noisy sports events (e.g., motor racing).

Identifying and remediating the situation

It’s no secret that occupational health and safety laws worldwide address this issue and require ear protection for employees. Sport clubs do likewise for certain events, such as skeet shooting and biathlon. Savvy music lovers bring ear plugs to concerts or buy them on site.

During everyday living, most people don’t use ear protection because they aren’t exposed to constant high-frequency sounds that prevent them from hearing one another when they speak. Some people might be so used to harmful sounds that they no longer “hear” them. And others might be constantly exposed to low-frequency sounds that they don’t immediately perceive (e.g., sounds from wind turbines).

When I find myself in unsuitable situations, I ask whoever is in charge to lower the volume ( I’ve done so in yoga classes, stores and indoor swimming facilities). I keep a bag of ear plugs beside the house keys. And I remind (nag) my young adult children and friends whenever I observe that they might need protection.

So I’ll leave you with this: be mindful of settings that might affect your health and well-being, and do what works best for you to remediate the situation. Sometimes you might have to walk away from them.

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Ed: B. Bemel

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