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Noise pollution

Intrusive and unwanted noise seems to be a fact of modern life, but it can seriously affect our health in several ways, from causing deafness to pushing up our blood pressure. So what can we do to limit the damage?

The roadworker's pneumatic drill, blaring pop music, the constant drone of traffic and the roar of an overhead jet are just some of the noises guaranteed to put most people's nerves on edge.

DAMAGING EFFECTS
Besides damaging our hearing and, in extreme cases, causing irreversible deafness, noise pollution can raise blood pressure and cause insomnia. It has also been linked with psychiatric disorders such as anxiety. In fact, continual invasive noise has been known to drive people to suicide and even murder.

Doctors first discovered the connection between hearing loss and prolonged exposure to high noise levels some 250 years ago, when they noted that many workers in the metal industry were deaf. In fact, it was an occupational hazard among many workers; one type of noise-related hearing loss was named 'boilermaker's deafness'.

NO IMPROVEMENT
Despite improved health and safety regulations, we are still suffering. One recent study has revealed that more than 10 million Americans have had their hearing damaged by noise and over 20 million are regularly exposed to noise that could lead to hearing loss.

But these statistics also include the largely self-inflicted damage caused by loud music on PA systems or personal stereos.

Excessively loud noise damages the sensitive hair cells in your cochlea, or inner ear, which relay sound signals to the brain.

If you are only exposed occasionally to this kind of noise, you may experience a temporary ringing in the ears and some hearing loss, but both the damaged hair cells and your hearing will probably recover. Repeated exposure, however, can cause permanent and irreversible damage. This in turn can provoke chronic tinnitus, where the sufferer continually hears noises inside their ears or head.

WHO IS AT RISK?
Some of us are more susceptible than others to the damaging effects of noise on our hearing. It seems men are more easily affected, although this may simply be because men are exposed more often to loud noise at work.

Blue-eyed people are more easily affected too. This may be because, being generally fair-skinned, they have less of the skin pigment melanin which seems to give the sensitive cochlea some protection from injury.

GETTING ON OUR NERVES
It is much more difficult to evaluate the psychological or behavioural harm caused by noise annoyance, but the most common problem is thought to be insomnia.

Intermittent noise is much more likely to upset sleep than prolonged noise of the same degree of loudness. And emotionally-charged sounds like the cry of a child or arguing neighbours are more likely to wake us than neutral sounds,

DISTURBED PATTERNS
Noise can also upset our sleep in more subtle ways. It can shift us from heavy sleep into lighter sleep, reduce rapid eye movement (REM) sleep - the segment in which dreaming occurs - and lead to more tossing and turning.

In turn, poor sleep can have a detrimental effect on our mood, concentration, the performance of the heart and circulation.

Noise can often aggravate some disorders such as anxiety. Sensitivity to loud noise has a definite link with most psychiatric illnesses, as-they tend to lower the sufferer's usual tolerance level of noise.

There is also evidence that continual noise annoyance can play a significant role in other disorders - for instance, it can increase the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and peptic ulcers.

SOOTHING SOUNDS
However, some sounds exert a beneficial effect on our health. Listening to enjoyable sounds at safe decibel levels encourages our bodies to release endorphins - natural morphine-like brain chemicals that help us to relax and boost our mood.

Music at the same tempo as our heart rate - around 70-80 beats a minute - is perceived as soothing. The faster it gets, the more it raises tension, while very slow music seems to create suspense.

HOW TO SWITCH OFF
It's a good idea to wear good quality ear protectors or plugs if you know you are going to be subjected to loud noise for a prolonged period.

If you go out with a personal stereo, don't turn it above the level you would use in a quiet room.

Keep the volume of domestic sound systems at a sensible level. As a rule of thumb, you should never have to raise your voice more than slightly to carry on a conversation when there is music in the background.

     
     

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