UN ranks world's worst sounds: 'Public health menace'

·Environment Editor
·4-min read

Having trouble sleeping at night, suffering from poor mental health, or struggling to hear?

Noise pollution could be the culprit, a new United Nations report warns.

If you're living in a major city like Melbourne or Sydney where fireworks are a common occurrence, then you may want to cover your ears.

Leaf blowers (left) and fireworks were singled out in the UN study of noise pollution. Source: Getty
Fireworks and leaf blowers were singled out in the UN study of noise pollution. Source: Getty

They've been listed alongside gunfire as causing sound beyond the threshold of pain when set off close to the ear.

Significantly, common consumer items like leaf blowers and chainsaws were categorised as causing noise close to the threshold of discomfort.

They were lightly higher on the list than vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers and traffic sounds.

How the various sounds are ranked

Barely audible to quiet

  • 10 dB normal breathing (barely audible)

  • 40 dB library (perceived as quiet)

Quiet to moderately loud

  • 60 dB normal conversation (quiet to moderately loud)

  • 70 dB vacuum cleaner 3 metres away (moderately loud)

Moderately loud to very loud

  • 80 dB heavy traffic (moderately to very loud)

  • 100 dB ambulance siren 30 metres away (very loud)

Very loud to beyond the threshold of pain

  • 110 dB loud thunder or leaf blower (very loud to discomfort threshold)

  • 140 dB fireworks or gunshot within 1 metre (beyond pain threshold)

Noise pollution linked to growling list of health ailments

With cities impacted by the unwanted sounds of traffic, railways and leisure activities, researchers across the globe have linked them to conditions including heart disease, diabetes and chronic annoyance.

In Europe noise pollution is contributing to the deaths of an estimated 12,000 people each year, and worryingly the issue is getting worse.

A staggering 22 million people across the continent now suffer from chronic noise annoyance.

Like most environmental disturbances, noise pollution is significantly harming the young and elderly, along with poor communities near industrial areas or roads.

Native species are also suffering, with birds, insects and amphibians altering their behaviour to cope with industrial human sounds.

Sparrows in Bogota, Colombia, have been observed singing earlier each morning, to beat the drone of morning rush hour.

This chart illustrates how various sounds are perceived in terms of comfort to the ear. Source: United Nations
This chart illustrates how various sounds are perceived in terms of comfort to the ear. Source: United Nations

Some regions have even used manmade noise to disperse the sounds of nature.

A council in Cairns, Queensland ordered workers to use sound to frighten a group of flying foxes from the city.

In Japan and the Faroe Islands dolphin hunters use underwater bangs to herd and then slaughter dolphins, and there are growing concerns about underwater noise generated by ships and undersea drilling impacting whales.

The loss of natural acoustics is not only a concern for wildlife, but also humans, as birdsong along with the noise of rustling leaves and tree branches are known to reduce stress.

Fireworks sound beyond pain threshold, UN report warns

Released on Friday, the UN’s report lists noise pollution alongside bushfires as “growing into a global public health menace”.

Near-complete silence is measured at 0 dB, and a sound 10 times greater than this is 10 dB.

When it comes to traffic noise, the World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 53 dB during the day, and 45 dB at night, and one degree less when it comes to public transport.

Cairns Regional Council used noise to disperse native bats from the city centre. Source: Supplied
Cairns Regional Council used noise to disperse native bats from the city centre. Source: Supplied

Sadly around nine in 10 New Yorkers using mass transit public transport are exposed to levels above 70 dB.

In Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City cyclists are exposed to ear damaging 78 dB sounds.

Simple solutions can help dampen noise

To combat the issue, the UN recommends a number of simple solutions, with many of them aligned with heat reducing initiatives.

Roadside tree belts and barriers can be used to bounce noise away from buildings and homes, and green roofs are also known to absorb sound.

While quieter than combustion engine vehicles, electric cars still emit tyre sound when driven above 50km per hour, but this can be reduced by lining roads with porous asphalt.

Interestingly the way humans perceive sound, is highly influenced by what we see, so improving the look of cities can also help elevate the issue.

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