Public officials and scientists are looking at what kinds of noise most annoy us—and what kinds can make us feel better
Public officials and scientists are increasingly absorbed in the study of how sound affects our health.
Negative effects, such as stress from the roar of traffic, are getting most of the attention. But sound experts also are looking at ways that sound can be engineered to both soothe spirits and serve safety needs.
Much of the concern is driven by the increasingly urban, and noisy, environments in which so many people live. A World Health Organization study in 2011 made the case that at least one million West Europeans could expect to lose on average about a year of good health over the course of their lives due to traffic noise. Traffic noises cause high blood pressure, interrupt sleep and increase stress, the study found.
Noise at street level in New York City was found to average about 73 decibels in a 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Health. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that outdoor noise levels above 55 decibels can be dangerous to one’s health, and that chronic exposure to noise levels above 70 decibels can lead to hearing loss and health problems.
As a result, some researchers are gathering data that they hope can help bring urban noise to a healthier level. Erica Walker, for one, a researcher in the Boston University School of Public Health, is attempting to compile detailed sound maps of cities around the world, starting with Boston. She has recorded sound levels across the city and interviewed residents about what noises and neighborhoods are the worst.
Ms. Walker says that with her research, she also wanted to “take a step back and peel back the layers of what is noise.”
“I found that there are components of sound we don’t regulate and don’t measure,” she says. For instance, Ms. Walker has found that sound frequency—the speed of the vibration that determines the pitch of the sound—is what bothers residents the most, such as when people waiting at a bus stop can feel the reverberations when a bus passes by.