Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

The Harm and Causes of Noise Pollution

Category Pollution, Sound
Words 2500 (10 pages)
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As a Kansas local, I am lucky to live in the country, where exposure to noise is usually under my own control. On a normal day, the average decibel rating on my front porch is 37 decibels. Even on a day when farm equipment can be heard off in the distance, the top decibel reading I have taken at my home is 47 decibels.

This is not the case in Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence is affected by noise pollution, just like all cities. The main sources of noise pollution are cars and trucks, construction sites, entertainment spots, and other industrial noise. These sources of noise effect different people in different ways. They also effect animals, that live in Lawrence, and other cities. This is due to how close we are to the noise, and how long we are exposed. Due to this, Lawrence has created noise ordinances in order to help lessen the issue.

Living in a family with several hearing professionals, I learned at an early age about hearing protection, and how sound is measured. The term decibel (dB) is used to a measure and explain the intensity of a sound. It is measured on a logarithmic scale starting at 0 dB. Zero decibels is nearly complete silence.

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The way sound is measured is sometimes difficult to understand because a sound 10 times more powerful than silence is rated at 10 dB; and a sound 100 times more powerful than silence is rated at 20 dB. This continues as a sound 1000 times more powerful is rated at 30 decibels and the follows the same pattern. I find the best way to explain it is using real world examples.

I took the following decibel readings as examples:

  • 20 dB - Wind through the trees
  • 33 dB – Water moving is a stream
  • 52 dB – A truck passing on a gravel road
  • 57 dB – People talking indoors
  • 69 dB – A running shower
  • 92 dB – Lawn tractor
  • 114 db – Full size farm tractor
  • 126 dB – Kansas Men's Basketball Game at Allen Field House
  • 157 dB – 20 gauge shotgun

The biggest problem with noise pollution is that it is part of almost everything we do, and it can't be eliminated entirely. Industrial machines, construction equipment, items used for music and entertainment, and even children's toys are part the overall level of noise pollution. Noise can be lessened in most instances, or can be isolated to places where the distractions and impact are minimal. This is why most areas have zoning laws that make industrial plants locate outside of areas where populations typically live.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health ; Human Services, lists 70 decibels as the noise level where sound becomes damaging to humans and other living things. The immediate volume of noise does not always matter, as damage can also happen from prolonged, or accrued, exposure. Karl Kryter, a noted author on the subject of noise induced hearing loss, reports that "exposure exceeding eight hours of noise exceeding eighty-five decibels is hazardous and can result in the loss of hearing".

At my home outside the city in more rural Douglas County, I am approximately 11 miles from the KU campus. The sounds I hear when I am at home are completely different from those I hear when I go to school, or when I visit Lawrence. Our family home is a ranch style so it is all on one level. To get to the front door you have to step up onto a very large covered deck, and at one end, past the front door, is a white porch swing.

I sit in that porch swing to relax and study any day when the weather permits. I close my eyes as I rock back and forth, and I listen to the wind moving through the trees that line our driveway. I can hear the chickens in our chicken coop right around the corner from where I sit. They coo and talk to each other, sometimes flapping their wings to get up on top of the coop. I also hear Sophie and Sally, our two Nigerian Pygmy goats playing.

They love to climb on the wooden structure my dad built for them, and I can hear their hooves hitting the wooden deck as they jump on and off chasing each other. Their bleating as they communicate with each other truly makes me smile. I cannot imagine not being able to hear the sounds than I love.

When I go into Lawrence, I am faced with completely different sounds than at home. As an example, downtown Lawrence averages a decibel reading of about 70 decibels during an average workday. I measured a low of 42 dB and a high of 91 dB when delivery trucks were nearby. These are generally lower than what would be expected for an "urban environment" as Lawrence is not a large city.

Noise can have several negative effects on human beings, and other animals. Of all the possible impacts, permanent hearing loss is the biggest. This could be partial or even total hearing loss. In her 2017 article "Healthy Hearing," Brandy Plotnick reported, "an estimated sixteen million workers in the US factories miss work every year due to complications resulting from noise pollution, and estimates place the impact at a four billion dollar loss to the U.S. economy". Interestingly enough, noise receives the least attention of environmental pollutants. Noise pollution is invisible, and this fact contributes to the lack of understanding to the dangers.

Noise pollution negatively impacts the quality of life for people living in urban environments at a higher degree, due to their proximity to industries, transportation, airplanes overhead, and the larger number of entertainment venues. Worldwide, these large population centers usually have a large number of people living in close proximity to each other. Several countries, however, have taken noise pollution as a serious matter and taken action to try and control noise pollution.

The United States Government, for example, created the Occupational Safety ; Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from job related safety issues, including those that can cause noise induced hearing loss due to exposure. The European Union requires noise maps for cities in order to control the exposure of the population to excessive noise. The Netherlands does not allow construction of houses for human inhabitation in areas where the average noise in every twenty-four hours goes above 50 decibels.

The Noise Act of Great Britain empowers law enforcement and local authorities to confiscate all noisy equipment and charge fines to people making too much noise at night. The Noise Act of the Great Britain also requires developers to install porous asphalt technology with the capacity to lower traffic noise by up to five decibels (Stansfield et al).

One of the largest negative impact of noise pollution is noise induced hearing loss (NIDL). In order to understand how noise induced hearing loss happens, we first need to understand how we hear. The shape of our outer ear funnels sound into the ear canal and towards the eardrum. The eardrum (tympanic membrane) vibrates due to the sound and sends vibrations to the three tiny bones in the middle ear.

These three bones are called the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus) and the stirrup (stapes); and theyamplify the vibrations and send them to the inner ear (cochlea). Inside the cochlea are tiny hair-like cells. These cells react to the vibrations by releasing neurochemical messengers that turn the sound waves into electrical signals. The auditory nerve then carries the electrical signals to the brain, where they are translated into sound.

When we are exposed to single loud noises, or when we are exposed to noise levels of 70 dB or above for an extended period of time, the hair-like cells inside our inner ear are damaged. Over time, they can die, and our body does not have the ability to regenerate these cells. This noise induced hearing loss can cause loss of hearing in certain frequency ranges, or our ability to hear altogether. (Kryter)

Noise pollution has also been proven to cause negative psychological effects on humans and other animals. Among these is anxiety and nervous tension, loss of appetite, headaches, and issues with the pituitary gland. Increased exposure to noise pollution also can affect muscles and other internal organs by increasing inflammation of the nerve cells. The negative effects noise exposure can have on individuals has caused increased interest in noise pollution and ideas meant to protect the populations from excessive noise pollution (Atamca et al.).

The City of Lawrence, Kansas has made several attempts to lessen the effects of noise pollution on the local residents. Among these measures is the Lawrence noise ordinance, "Loud and Unnecessary Noise Prohibition of the Nuisance Act." According to the noise ordinance, "it is unlawful for any person to make, allow or continue to make any unnecessary, excessive, loud and unusual noise which endangers the comfort of others, creates a nuisance, injuries, repose or affects the safety of other people.

Noise interfering with the enjoyment of property of any person of reasonable sensibilities residing in or occupying the area is prohibited, unless the making or continuation in the making of such noise is necessary for the protection and preservation of the said property or the health and safety of an individual". The act specifically declares certain activities as nuisance noise, and a violation of this section, making them unlawful.

These items are, "the playing of any radio device, musical instrument sound amplifier and a similar device that amplifies sound in such a manner or intensity to annoy, cause distress, disturb the quiet, repose and comfort of a person of reasonable sensibilities within the vicinity or hearing range of the said noise. Steam whistles, the blowing of steam whistles attached to any stationary boiler except when being used to give notice of the opening and closing of an institution or establishment, or indicating initiation and end of work or give warning" (Noise Ordinance).

Although the ordinance was most recently published in 2017, it is clear from the items included that it has not been updated for many years. Brian Jimenez, Code Enforcement Manager for the City of Lawrence Kansas stated to me "the regulations have not kept up with population changes or advancements in technology". Instead of references to decibel readings, the ordinance classifies any noise from a stationary source as either loud, unnecessary or unusual as unlawful "as prohibited by the ordinance".

In doing some research for this speech, I took average decibel readings in several locations in Lawrence. These readings were taken Downtown (9th and New Hampshire), South (31st ; Iowa), Northwest (6th and Wakarusa) and on campus outside of Allen Fieldhouse. Each location was measured over a 3-hour period using an electronic dosimeter loaned to me by my father. The dosimeter measured levels constantly and provided data:

Downtown South Northwest Campus

  1. High dB Rdg. 102 91 87 92
  2. Low dB Rdg 67 58 55 51
  3. Avg dB for 3 hrs 83 79 72 71

Observations Construction and traffic Siren, traffic Traffic noise Police sirens. Overall lowest

Due primarily to traffic and construction noise, each of the four locations demonstrated an average decibel rating over 70 decibels. While it takes a higher level to cause immediate damage, constant exposure at these levels can become an issue. The high readings in each location were enough to cause damage, and the construction noise in downtown Lawrence is reaching dangerous levels at the peak measurements.
While the City of Lawrence has made positive strives, in working to control noise pollution, there is still a lot that could be done.

A big one is controlling of noise from construction activities. Construction, not like industrial activities, is not confined to specific locations. Construction takes places in commercial, industrial and even residential areas depending on the job. Construction can also involves the use of large machinery, resulting in noise pollution whose intensity changes based on the type of machinery used and the activity. Workers inside construction sites are usually protected using OSHA mandated personal hearing protection like earplugs or ear muffs, however, people living near the construction site are exposed to the high noise levels.

While taking readings on the sidewalk across the street from a construction site in downtown Lawrence recently, over a 30- minute period, decibel levels reached a high of 91 decibels with an average of 83 decibels. This tells me that the city could protect its residents better by creating an ordinance regulating noise from construction sites. Contractors could be required to take decibel measurements and lessen the noise that comes from machinery they use. Sound dampening technology is available today and there are cities where the requirements already exist.

Another area where the City of Lawrence can intervene is by regulating the level of noise coming from entertainment businesses. Over the last few years, Lawrence has allowed the building of quite a few downtown apartment buildings. Many are on New Hampshire Street where there are quite a few bars and restaurants featuring live music. These businesses add to the character and personality of Lawrence, but noise coming from them puts the hearing health of the people living in the neighborhood at risk.

As an example, on a recent Friday evening I took decibel readings outside of the "Bottleneck," a local bar with live music. Normal readings with the doors closed were just under 65 decibels, but the decibel levels jumped to over 100 decibels (averaged 102 dB) every time the doors opened. This is an unknown danger for the people living or even just walking nearby. Even across the street, the decibel level was higher than 85 decibels at times.

The most important thing we can do to reduce the damage of noise pollution is to educate the population. While most of us understand that very loud noises can harm us, the majority don't realize that lower noises over a period of time can actually be more harmful. There are several apps available for both Apple and Android phones, which measure decibel levels and provide the information for our own personal protection. I would encourage each of you to download one and look at the sounds you are exposed to in your own life. By measuring your own personal exposure, and understanding when hearing protection is beneficial, we can all reduce the chance of noise induced hearing loss.

Works Cited

  • Atmaca, E, et al. "Industrial Noise and Its Effects on Humans." Journal of Environmental Studies, vol. 14.6, 2005.
    Jimenez, Brian. Personal Interview. November 17, 2017
  • "Kansas Noise Ordinance 2017." City of Lawrence, KS, City of Lawrence, KS, 2017,
    Kryter, Karl D. The Effects of Noise on Man. Elsevier, 2013.
  • "Noise Induced Hearing Loss." National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017,
  • "Noise Induced Hearing Loss." National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017, Web
  • Plotnick, Brande. "Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)." Healthy Hearing, Healthy Hearing, 11 May 2017,
  • Stansfield, Stephen A, and Mark P Matheson. "Noise Pollution: Non-Auditory Effects on Health." British Medical Bulletin, vol. 68.0, 2003, pp. 243–257.

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