The roar of traffic, aircraft and even ringing telephones are linked to negative health effects. Now scientists are starting to unravel what all this noise is doing to our bodies.I
In 2011, Germany’s Frankfurt Airport – the country’s busiest – unveiled its fourth runway. The addition sparked major protests, with demonstrators returning to the airport every Monday for years. “It’s destroying my life,” one protester told Reuters a year later. “Every time I go into my garden, all I can hear and see are planes right above.”
The new runway also channelled dozens of aircraft directly over the house of Thomas Münzel, a cardiologist at the University Medical Center of Mainz. “I have lived close to the German Autobahn and close to inner city train tracks,” he says. “Aircraft noise is the most annoying by far.” Münzel had read a 2009 World Health Organization (WHO) report linking noise to heart problems, but evidence at the time was thin. Driven in part by concern for his own health, in 2011 he shifted the focus of his research to learn more.
Exposure to loud noise has long been linked with hearing loss. But the ruckus of planes and cars takes a toll beyond the ears. Traffic noise has been flagged as a major physiological stressor, second to air pollution and on roughly equal footing with exposure to second-hand smoke and radon.
In the last decade, a growing body of research has linked noise from aircraft and road traffic to a heightened risk for a number of cardiovascular ailments. And scientists are also beginning to pinpoint the mechanisms at play.
Estimates suggest that roughly a third of people in Europe and the US are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of noise, typically defined as starting around 70 to 80 decibels. For comparison, normal conversation is typically about 60 dB, cars and trucks range around 70 to 90 dB and sirens and airplanes can reach 120 dB or more.
Numerous studies link chronic exposure to such environmental noise to an increased risk of heart-related troubles. People living near the Frankfurt Airport, for example, have as much as a 7% higher risk of stroke than those living in similar but quieter neighbourhoods, according to a 2018 study that investigated health data of more than one million people. An analysis of nearly 25,000 cardiovascular deaths between 2000 and 2015 among people living near Switzerland’s Zurich Airport saw significant increases in night time mortality after airplane flyovers, especially among women, a team reported recently in the European Heart Journal.