Noise Pollution – Health risks

Noise Pollution - Health risks

Pollution kills – and not just the kind that can be seen hanging over the city in a soupy fog. Here Peter Wilson, technical director of Echo Barrier, explains why a not-so-silent killer is also causing tens of thousands of premature deaths.

The World Health Organisation has calculated that at least one million healthy life-years are lost every year in western European countries because of environmental noise.

Cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, sleeping disorders, cognitive impairment, tinnitus and deafness are all diseases directly related to the problem and noise exposure has also been linked with cognitive impairment and behavioural issues in children.

It is thought that noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which damages blood vessels over time.

“There’s consistent evidence that road traffic noise leads to heart attacks,” says Dr Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

He recently analysed the health of 365,000 people in Britain and Norway and found that long-term exposure to traffic noise affects our blood biochemistry – more so than the effects of exhaust fumes.

“Noise and air pollution usually co-exist, but we can adjust our statistical model to factor out the air pollution. Noise seems to have its own effect on the cardiovascular system,” he said.

Road traffic is cited as causing the most disturbance, followed closely by construction projects.

Both of these issues have led to noise mitigation becoming a hot topic for people working in the built environment sector.

When it goes wrong

In 2002 Tony Blair opened the Bexley Academy in south-east London and the Foster and Partners-designed scheme was declared revolutionary.

The structure was designed to block out the noise of road traffic using sound absorbing materials for its outer shell.

However, inside, the school was entirely open-plan.

The idea was that this would encourage interaction, promote transparency and allow working space to be flooded with natural light thanks to three central atriums.

But just six years after it was unveiled the 1,350-pupil school was deemed to be “failing” because the noise inside the building made teaching impossible and pupils unproductive.

A recent study of British primary school children showed that an increase in transport noise outside their classrooms led to a two-month reading delay.

While another German study recently found that higher levels of road traffic noise were associated with hyperactivity, inattention, and emotional problems.

No wonder Bexley students were struggling.

Sound solutions

Noise pollution is recognised by the Chief Medical Officer in England to be second only to air pollution for damaging public health.

On publishing research into the effects that noise pollution has on health, the Chief Medical Officer said: “Pollution is like junk food – it doesn’t hit you on the day, but it can accumulate and do you harm.”

As a result of understanding the detrimental impact of noise, a lot of architects focus on how to include acoustic measures into the design of buildings.

This is supported by the National Planning Policy Framework which includes provisions on noise, stipulating that local planning policies should protect against noise giving rise to ‘significant adverse impacts on health and quality of life’.

Building regulations add to this with specific requirements in place for new buildings as well as conversions.

However, as well as finding ways to improve building acoustics, we have to look at the impact of building creation. After all, along with the noise of traffic, construction work is pinpointed as a lead culprit in adding to noise pollution.

As a rule, noise upwards of 85 decibels is deemed harmful.

Construction sites are usually emitting noise in excess of this – which can cause a lot of distress to people living and working in the vicinity of a site.

On top of this, construction workers are at serious risk because the equipment they use regularly is above this limit. Forklifts emit sounds of 90 dBA, while hammer drills reach 120 dBA.

The amount of harm done by this depends on several factors, including how long you’re exposed to the noise for, how often, and whether you are wearing any kind of hearing protection.

Protection for all

We have to accept that building work is often noisy, and many jobs cannot get done without some crashing and banging. However, this does not mean you have permission to annoy neighbours at all hours of the day and night.

The Control of Pollution Act 1974 gives the council powers to control noise on construction sites; most normal building, refurbishment, renovation/alteration, maintenance, repair, decoration or demolition work will be covered by these powers.

The hours of work can be restricted, and conditions imposed such as what machinery can be used, how it should be used and where it should be located.

On top of this, acoustic barriers – like the ones we supply – can be implemented.

These work by providing a sound barrier between a construction site and the local community. They can also be used as enclosures to isolate ongoing loud sounds from work crews on sites.

Implementing a temporary sound control solution is a simple way to minimise the adverse impact we make on the public and environment around us.

The final word

Construction in close proximity to residential areas is always a delicate affair. It’s a balancing act between finishing the project on time and maintaining amicable relations with the community. That’s why it’s important to be on top of any threats of disturbance, particularly that of noise.

Echo Barrier came about as a result of the demand for community members and contractors to both be able to go about what they do in relative peace and quiet.

In construction environments, these noise-attenuating acoustic barriers help prevent a delicate situation from becoming a time-consuming public relations matter.

But they also go a long way to protecting the public from the detrimental effects of the not-so-silent killer.

Noise is often dismissed as nuisance compared to well-documented health risks such as air pollution.

But it’s a real – and very damaging problem – so a robust sound management needs to be incorporated into the core design of any development and used throughout the process of construction.

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Noise Pollution – Health risks