Information on the common effects and assumed effects of noise on people
There are many different effects of noise on people’s health and quality of life, ranging from simply detecting the noise to having activities (including sleep) disrupted by it, up to physical health risks. However, the impact of these often depends on the individual concerned – and the actual relationship between the noise and the effect can be hard to pin down.
Detection and annoyance
The same aircraft taking off may have a very different effect on two people in neighbouring houses. Both may detect it but while one is undisturbed by it, perhaps because they have the television or radio on, or are simply accustomed to the noise, the other may find it highly annoying.
From a noise control perspective, what matters is the cause of the annoyance. If it is the presence of noise itself that produces direct and immediate annoyance, then reducing its level might do little to change the reaction. On the other hand, if annoyance is related to the intensity of the noise, then reducing it would help.
Disturbance on tranquility
Some airports are located in areas of dense population and surrounded by major roads. Even without aviation, they’d still be noisy places. But other airports are in more tranquil areas – or extend into rural or semi-rural areas. That means a lower level of noise can have a greater impact on quality of life and wellbeing.
Because protecting areas of tranquillity is recognised as important for society as a whole, the effect of noise on a tranquil area can impact planning decisions about airport location and expansion, new runways and flight paths.
Disruption of work and activity – including children’s learning
Many people feel that a quiet environment is needed for tasks involving mental concentration and creative activity – as well as for any task that depends upon being able to hear information. So for children learning at school, high levels of noise could be seen as very disruptive. Many studies have sought to investigate this and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that exposure to high levels of noise can affect a child’s reading ability – essentially because it disrupts their concentration.
It’s well known that noise can interfere with sleep: that’s why alarm clocks work! However, it’s also possible to become accustomed to high levels of noise and so sleep through them – such as when you’re on a plane, or a train. And it’s not just the loudness of a sound that affects sleep: parents may well have been woken by the stirring of a child, yet sleep through a thunderstorm. Furthermore, sleep disturbance can also be caused by many other factors apart from noise – like stress, changes in light and other physiological reasons.
Despite extensive studies into the effects of noise on sleep, it is difficult to derive definitive noise exposure criteria governing sleep disturbance. What is clear, however, is that sleep disturbance is a significant cause of annoyance. So whether directly caused by noise or not, if people perceive the noise to be the reason for disturbed sleep, they are more likely to be annoyed by it.
The human ear can be exposed to high levels of noise in excess of around 120dB, for a short time, without it being permanently harmed. However, over the long term, regular lengthy exposure to sound levels over around 80dB may cause permanent hearing damage or even loss.
However, the level of aircraft noise experienced at locations beyond airport boundaries is not likely to cause hearing damage.
Stress and other health risks
One of the effects of noise that is hardest to assess is stress. It is known that noise can cause a variety of biological reflexes and responses, which are referred to as stress reactions, but it is unclear to what extent these might lead to clinically recognisable disease following a period of exposure to noise.
There seems to be general consensus that environmental noise can affect subjective sleep quality and mood the next day, and has an acute impact on heart rate; some studies have found that children who are chronically exposed to noise experience raised levels of stress, increased blood pressure and mental health effects. But overall, scientific literature to date has generally found that the evidence for long-term impact on stress hormone levels is inconclusive.
A more detailed review of research into noise and its health effects was published by the CAA in 2010 is available here.
The CAA has produced several publications around the effects of aviation noise.