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A plane flies over a Chicago neighborhood as it lands at Midway Airport. A recent World Health Organization study reports noise pollution can be a health threat. (AP)

Noise Pollution Hard On Heart As Well As Ears

by Brent Baughman
May 14, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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According to a recent study, noise pollution could be costing lives. A World Health Organization report finds Western Europeans lose years to death or disability from excessive sound. Though European countries have taken steps to turn the volume down, the U.S. backed off the effort decades ago.

Across an estimated population of 340 million people, at least 1 million years of healthy living are lost each year due to noise pollution in Western Europe, WHO researcher Rokho Kim says.

A Dangerous Response To Noise

A few too many sleepless nights can add up to heart disease, higher blood pressure and a host of stress-related health issues. But, Kim says, it's not the lost sleep so much as the human body's reaction to noise that's dangerous.

"For example, when someone is sleeping and the sound level increases, even though the person is not aware, not conscious, the heart rate is increasing and the blood pressure is increasing," he says.

Kim speculates that these reactions are probably leftover from our prehistoric period, when humans always had to be prepared — even while asleep. Those same reactions that may have kept us safe could be hurting us today.

"If that's continued for life, clearly there is a burden on the cardiovascular system and central nervous system," Kim says.

Turning Down The Volume

Countries in Europe aggressively regulate noise, he points out. In the Netherlands, some roads are topped with low-noise pavement. Cars have low-noise tires, and airports compensate residents for sound-proofing their houses.

The U.S., however, doesn't regulate noise on the federal level. There was a time when the EPA handled noise much like other pollutants, setting and enforcing regulations, recommending reductions and assessing the risks. That changed in 1982, when Ronald Reagan closed the Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

Reagan cited budget concerns, according to Garret Keizer, author of The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, and decided noise was better regulated by state and local officials.

"No president and Congress has seen fit to revive it," Keizer says.

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