Marking International Noise Awareness Day

International Noise Awareness Day takes place this year on April 24th. As with every other year since its inception in 1996, its message is simple but critical – protect your hearing, protect your health.

International Noise Awareness Day aims to shine a much-needed light on the damage that excessive noise can do and raise awareness of the harmful effects of noise on hearing, health and quality of life. This global initiative was motivated by the desire to bring noise issues to the fore, and participants are urged to highlight their own local noise issues by encouraging healthy hearing practices, holding hearing workshops, or advocating for legislative change.

The body of evidence on the detrimental impact of noise pollution is growing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of research projects have documented the damage caused by excessive noise to the delicate hair (or nerve) cells in the inner ear. Continual sound pressure against these nerve fibers can cause temporary damage at first but permanent damage can occur as time goes on. Permanent hearing loss can then result from damage to these cells. It is unsurprising that noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss among the 466 million people around the world living with a moderate to severe hearing loss. Loud noise exposure can also lead to tinnitus, a distressing condition that is marked by a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head.

Loud noise within our environment that we have little or no control over can regularly exceed safe listening levels – from kitchen appliances to loud trains, the use of power tools or rock concerts. Even listening to music via earbuds or headphones at excessive volume can be damaging. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.1 billion young people (aged 12-35 years) are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational settings – hearing loss that is entirely preventable.

The European Environment Agency’s report ‘Environmental noise in Europe — 2020’ found that a staggering 20% of Europe’s population – more than 100 million people – are exposed to long-term noise levels that are harmful to their health. The report also states that noise seems to have a larger impact on indicators related to quality of life and mental health, noting that research by WHO suggests that noise is the second largest environmental cause of health problems, second only to the impact of air pollution. But while air pollution is beginning to decrease, noise pollution is continuing to rise. A 2022 report by the UN said that the physical and mental health detriments from urban noise pollution are one of the top emerging environmental threats.

Europe has taken a proactive stance on combating noise pollution by requiring major cities to report on traffic noise levels and encouraging effective interventions. The EEA says countries, regions and cities are taking a variety of measures to address noise problems. For instance, installing low noise asphalt on roads, using quiet tyres in public transport vehicles, putting more infrastructure for electric cars in cities, promoting active travel like walking or cycling, and pedestrianisation of streets, all help. Closer to home, proper sound insulation, double glazing, and the use of adequate ear protection when exposed to loud noises will help.

The WHO Make Listening Safe initiative was launched in 2015 and has the goal of changing listening practices and behaviours so that people of all ages can enjoy recreational listening without risk to their hearing. Not only does it raise awareness raised awareness about the need for and means of safe listening, and implementation of evidence-based standards that can facilitate behaviour change in target population groups. The imitative led to the launch of the “Safe listening devices and systems: a WHO-ITU standard” which provides adults and children with a set of recommendations for sound dosage and operating times needed to avoid potential hearing risks.

International Noise Awareness Day was established in response to what its organisers say is “the urgent need to lower the volume and enhance peace and quiet in the world”. This will be beneficial for our environment, but also our health, wellbeing and quality of life. As April 24th approaches, it’s clear that noise pollution is a serious health concern that deserves to be high on the agenda – and that’s a message we all need to hear.

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