Air pollution, in case you missed the memo, is really bad for you. But what's nearly as bad for you could come as a shock: irritating noises. According to a study from the the World Health Organization and the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. The report, Burden of Disease From Environmental Noise, claims that western Europeans lose up to 1.6 million years of healthy living annually from noise pollution, compared to 4.5 million years lost for air pollution (noise is only second to air pollution in environmental hazards, according to WHO). How does the WHO come up with these figures?
The report claims that noise pollution leads to major health problems, including heart disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance and tinnitus. By far the biggest noise-related health issue is annoyance and sleep interruption from road traffic (this should be familiar to all city-dwellers). Lack of sleep means a generally less healthy life. But other sources of noise--construction, loud neighbors, drunks at the local bar, fireworks, snowmobiles--are also contributors.
Lying awake at three AM is just part of the problem. The report cites studies claiming that noise disturbances can also lead to high blood pressure, and in turn heart disease and death. Loud noises are also dangerous for children--according to WHO, "over 20 studies have shown negative effects of noise on reading and memory in children...Tasks affected are those involving central processing and language, such as reading comprehension, memory and attention. Exposure during critical periods of learning at school could potentially impair development and have a lifelong effect on educational attainment." And, of course, noise pollution can lead to tinnitus (i.e. ringing in the ears), which can sometimes cause hearing loss.
The takeaway: noise pollution, which sounds mostly silly, actually matters. Fortunately, some technology that is better for air pollution is also better for noise pollution--electric vehicles are basically silent unless manufacturers add artificial noise. If only we could figure out how to silence construction sites, the problem might be lessened even further.