Speaking Out: Sound Solutions to Noise Pollution

Sound is a stimulus that informs us about our surroundings and helps shape our bodies’ reflexes at any given moment; and while sound information is useful and in many cases essential to our daily activities, the unfortunate and inescapable fact is that our world is getting louder. In fact it’s become so loud that we’ve reached the point where the levels of sound we encounter are a hindrance or even harmful, rather than helpful. Sound consultant Julian Treasure recently gave a TED Talk that shed some unsettling light on the issue of noise pollution and how it affects our well being.

You can read more about Mr Treasure’s insightful presentation here.

As hearing protection professionals, understanding noise pollution and its effects are of critical importance to us – so, based on this informative study, let’s look at three vital areas of life that are feeling the negative effects of excessive noise levels: 

1. Health

The World Health Organisation recommends noise levels not exceeding 35 decibels in hospital wards where patients are resting and recovering; this is the same recommended level for optimum night-time sleeping. However, recent studies have shown that a typical recovery care unit has an average noise level of around 67 decibels – the same as a busy office – while in many hospital wards it can rise as high as 95 decibels.

Higher noise levels naturally make the body more alert as it feels it is under threat; this means that patients find it harder to rest and relax, and the average number of minutes needed to fall asleep increases significantly. A case study has also shown that higher noise levels can enhance one’s perception of pain. Patients in noisier environments were noted to ask for pain relief medication more frequently.


2. Education

The WHO also recommends that noise levels in a classroom not rise above 35db, but the learning environment is getting noisier, and this is proving detrimental to students and teachers alike. A German study showed that average noise levels in the classroom are typically as high as 65db, which is uncomfortably loud and even associated with permanent hearing loss in the case of long-term exposure.

Students in these noise-polluted environments hear less of what their teacher says, and receive an overall education of lower quality. Naturally, we tend to raise our voices as our environment gets louder (this is known as the Lombard reflex), and a study back in 2004 revealed that as many as 50% of teachers had hurt or strained their voices when trying to make themselves heard over the noise of the classroom. This can however be remedied with the right information and communication technology (ITC) solutions in our classrooms.


3. Work

That loud-mouthed co-worker having a personal phone conversation at his desk isn’t just a nuisance – he’s also affecting your concentration, your performance and your wellbeing. Workplace studies have shown that if we hear the sounds of conversation or other distracting noise around us while we read or write, our ability to concentrate drops dramatically – by up to 66%. Workplace noise has also been linked to higher stress levels, impaired short-term memory and less willingness to engage with others. With so many of us working in open-plan offices and shared workspaces, this issue is affecting productivity on a global level.

The “Building in Sound” infographic (see link above) suggests an integrated approach to solving the problem of noise pollution; with the technology at our disposal today we can work to minimise harmful sounds and protect our hearing, preventing permanent damage and improving our quality of life.

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