An invisible, tasteless and odorless pollutant may be affecting your health, and no, you're not inhaling it. Turns out noise pollution may increase your risk of heart problems. New research released Wednesday in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine shows that those who work in noisy environments have a higher prevalence of chest pain, heart attacks, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found that workers in noisy professions (defined as a volume at which they had to raise their voices to be heard), had two to three times the likelihood of having a heart problem compared to those who worked in quieter places. The study, which included more than 6,000 survey participants, found that 3.6 percent of workers who said they worked around noise developed heart disease compared to 2.4 percent of workers who said they didn't. The study author Wenqi Gan, an environmental-health expert at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, speculates that excessive noise can be considerably stressful, triggering the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which constrict arteries and reduce blood supply to the heart. That's "cause for concern," he says.
Any environmental noise pollution—like a continuous barrage of garbage trucks barreling down the street outside your apartment window or airplanes zooming overhead—could potentially have similar detrimental health effects. The World Health Organization along with grassroots organizations like NoiseOFF have sounded alarm bells about risks associated with stress-provoking noise. These include difficulties communicating due to hearing impairment, sleep disturbances, or digestive problems, excessive fatigue, irritability, mental-health disorders and high blood pressure. Of course, there's also the obvious hearing loss you may experience from being exposed to excessively harsh volumes in the workplace or during leisure time (like blasting the iPod), according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Louis Hagler, a retired physician in Oakland, Calif., became convinced of the harmful effects of noise after his blood pressure rose several years ago, which he believes was caused by the incessant "symphony" of a train horn blaring past his former home, which kept him up at night. Hagler, who has contributed to research and a book on the subject, says it's analogous to cigarettes: "Someone enjoys smoking a cigarette and other people suffer as a result. Some people enjoy making noise by having their car radios turned up to an unconscionable level, and those sources of noise make other people sick." Hagler found his solution through advocacy: He wrote hundreds of letters to his city attorney and formed a partnership with a city councilor to plug the horns on trains passing through town.
For noise problems that can't be solved through city ordinances, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association suggests wearing hearing protectors like ear plugs when you're exposed to loud noises that you can't avoid, like the loud cell-phone talker sitting next to you on the train. Also, try turning down the volume on your car radio or TV and, when possible, buy softer-sounding appliances like a quiet dishwasher or a lawn-mower with a muffler. Soothing ambient sound machines can also help drown out outdoor disturbances that you can't control.
Bottom line: Take care to minimize sounds that cause stress. Hagler says any noise that triggers tension—right down to the soft drip, drip, drip of a faucet—could take a toll on both your mind and body.