Campus study links noise pollution to social inequalities

Lianne Frick/Staff

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Like air pollutants and exposure to hazardous waste, noise pollution is not distributed evenly, a new study led by campus researchers found. The study is the first to assess social inequalities, such as racial disparities, in noise pollution across the United States.

The research, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal July 25, was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Hewlett and Kellogg Foundations.

“We were concerned about noise pollution, in particular, because Europe has a lot of studies and health effects related to noise pollution,” Joan Casey, lead author of the study and postdoctoral scholar at the campus Department of Public Health, said. “There’s basically none of those types of studies here in United States.”

The study concluded that communities characterized by lower socioeconomic status and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to noise pollution. It also concluded that more racially segregated metropolitan regions experience higher rates of noise pollution.

Researchers received huge volumes of data collected by the National Park Service — more than 1.5 million hours of noise level data in more than 200,000 neighborhoods — Casey said.

Transportation, aircraft and commercial activity are the main producers of noise, according to Daniel Mennitt, a research scientist at Colorado State University. Noise has a detrimental effect on housing values, Mennitt explained, and people who can afford it will purchase homes in quieter areas. The study also found a correlation in renter populations and noise pollution.

“People renting apartments or homes are living in louder areas than are of people who owned homes, (this) speaks to the setup of the community,” Casey said.

In previous studies, noise pollution has been linked to health disparities, including hearing loss, hypertension, sleep deprivation, cognitive and behavioral problems in children and diabetes. Casey explained, however, that very few of these studies have been completed in the United States, which makes it difficult to implement new U.S. policies.

In 1981, the Environmental Protection Agency cited up to 145.5 million Americans experiencing noise levels that exceed the adequate margin of safety. The EPA, which conducted extensive studies in noise control in the 1970s, was given less funding in the 1980s, according to Mennitt. After its defunding, less attention was given to levels of noise pollution.

Casey hopes her study will “jumpstart interest” for other United States-based researchers to take noise pollution on in their own research.

She added that if people were more aware of the detrimental effects of noise pollution, preventative measures could be made, such as using quiet technology including double-paned windows, sound-proofing and noise machines.

Causes of air pollution are often causes of noise pollution, including trucks and factories, according to Susan Moffat, project director of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative and lecturer in the campus Department of City and Regional Planning. Providing affordable housing away from freeways and industrial areas might help mitigate the issue, she said in an email.

“We’ve known a long time about racial disparities in public health,” Moffat continued in an email.  “This information on disparities in exposure to noise is not surprising, but it’s disheartening.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.