Noise Pollution and Environmental Injustice: Why marginalized communities are at greater risk

Does noise pollution affect the rich as much as the poor?

Noise is a constant annoyance that nobody enjoys; from blaring traffic horns to the drone of an air conditioning unit, noise pollution can significantly impact our well-being, both physically and mentally.

So, it’s no surprise that those with the means to do so often seek out quieter environments to take up residence. But unfortunately, not everyone has that luxury. The people most vulnerable to the harmful effects of noise pollution are often those who can’t avoid it; this means low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are hit the hardest. These areas tend to be located near loud and disruptive noise sources like highways, airports, and industrial facilities. For example, a study in 2010 showed that minorities and low-income populations were concentrated in the noisiest areas.

Furthermore, in 2017, a study conducted across the United States revealed a startling disparity in outdoor noise levels. Lower-income areas with higher concentrations of American Indian, Asian, Black, and Hispanic residents were found to have considerably higher noise exposure.

What’s even more concerning is that these findings were particularly pronounced in areas with greater levels of racial segregation. In these cases, segregation leads to communities of color and working-class residents being clustered in areas with limited economic opportunities, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory housing policies. This separation results in power imbalances that lead to unequal exposure to environmental hazards like noise pollution.

In 1990, the study “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” demonstrated how those with prominent influence often decide on the location of unwanted land uses, impacting less powerful communities, which is unfair (to say the least).

Noise pollution, a public health concern

Noise is a widespread public health problem that can have serious consequences. Exposure to excessive noise levels can result in hearing loss, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disease, and social handicaps. It can also reduce productivity, impair teaching and learning, increase absenteeism, lead to harmful and problematic drug use, and cause accidents. Moreover, it can negatively affect the ability to enjoy one’s property and leisure time and increase the incidence of antisocial or disruptive behavior.

As discussed, noise pollution is often felt most strongly by marginalized communities, such as those living in low-income areas, who may lack the resources to combat its effects. It is, therefore, particularly concerning because noise pollution can exacerbate existing health disparities: with people who already have complex health issues, at greater risk of the harmful health effects of noise.

When something exacerbates existing health disparities, it makes these differences that exist in health even worse. And to make matters worse, there are often no structural policies in place to address noise pollution, which can lead to even more health inequities and discrimination. 

Health inequities?

“Health inequity” refers to systematic and unjust differences in health outcomes between different groups of persons, based on social and economic factors such as race, ethnicity, income, education, and geographic location.

In the broader sense, health inequities can manifest in many ways, such as differences in rates of illness, disease, disability, and death. For example, certain racial and ethnic groups may have higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

These differences in health outcomes are often linked to broader social determinants of health, such as access to healthcare, safe housing, nutritious food, clean air and water, and safe neighborhoods, and within this frame of reference: access to noise abatement technology.

Health inequities are unjust because they are largely preventable and stem from systemic and social injustices. Addressing health inequities requires addressing the root causes of these inequalities and working to create more equitable and just social systems.

Environmental Injustice

Even those living in luxury high-rises in bustling cities like New York can experience the harmful effects of noise pollution. However, when low-income neighborhoods or communities of color are disproportionately affected, noise pollution becomes a social justice issue that worsens existing health disparities, limits economic opportunities, and reduces overall quality of life. Therefore, it’s essential to address noise pollution as a social justice issue (environmental injustice) and ensure equal access to a healthy environment.

Aaron Zwintscher writes:

“There is also the long history of noise abatement, a complex political strategy that in theory is laudable and in practice is often only a protection for the wealthy and connected, a shunting of the problem unto the disenfranchised (we might note specifically here airports and other transportation noise—a significant source) and those who cannot afford to move away from nearby neighborhoods or take on less auditorily damaging careers.”

Aaron Zwintscher

While many of us may think of noise as a nuisance that disrupts our concentration or peace, it can actually be much more harmful than that. In fact, some sounds that people may not even consider “noise” can still be physiologically damaging.

Simply put, the impact of noise on our bodies cannot be defined solely by its loudness or perceived annoyance. Exposure to high levels of noise pollution can lead to various health issues, including stress, sleep disturbance, and hearing damage, regardless of whether the sound is bothersome.

Moreover, some individuals are more susceptible to noise pollution than others, experiencing physical reactions like nausea, headaches, elevated heart rate, and blood pressure in response to sounds that may not even be noticeable to others. As a result, it is crucial to acknowledge that noise pollution can severely affect our health, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

How does noise affect our health?

Noise impacts our general health and well-being, similar to chronic stress. It also has long-term effects on future generations by degrading residential, social, and learning environments, leading to corresponding economic losses.

Despite local control efforts, noise remains a persistent problem in most places.

In recent years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the effects of noise on our health. It is believed that noise can harm our cardiometabolic health by triggering a physiological stress response (flight or fight response). The flight or fight response is a stress response- that is a consequence of many social and environmental stressors.

When we are exposed to repeated and prolonged stressors like noise, our bodies activate the sympathetic-adrenal-medulla system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which release primary mediators of the stress response, such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol (which is just a fancy way of describing the physiology of the flight or fight response). These mediators then activate secondary immune, cardiovascular, and metabolic responses.

While this stress response can be adaptive during short-term stressors, repeated exposure to environmental stressors can harm our bodies, disrupting normal functioning and leading to dysregulation of multiple physiological systems. People living in urban areas with high levels of noise pollution may be particularly susceptible to this dysregulation.

Extended stress can manifest itself in a multitude of physical ailments, including but not limited to headaches, muscle pains, and skin issues such as acne. It can also have adverse effects on digestion, raising or lowering one’s appetite. Furthermore, stress has the potential to increase one’s blood pressure, a condition that can damage one’s heart health. It can also impede reproductive system functioning and sex drive. Stress can even disturb one’s sleep and cause mood swings such as sadness or anxiety. Moreover, it increases the frequency of one’s illnesses.

Noise complaints in American cities

According to a study done in 2022, noise complaints in New York City have seen the most significant increase since 2010 in economically distressed communities, particularly during the warmer seasons.

View interactive map here

This disparity was further magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which contradicts some theories of urban quieting.

The study suggests that community-based interventions are necessary to address noise and noise annoyance, which are both public health hazards, in underserved communities.

Community-based interventions

According to the same study, despite efforts to address the issue, current strategies have failed, and expanding the local police force is not a viable solution due to discriminatory practices and harmful effects on physical and mental health.

Therefore, noise interventions that do not worsen health disparities are needed. These might include:

  • Trained community mediators.
  • Concrete changes such as better soundproofing noise sources may be an effective solution.
  • Increasing greenspace, which not only acts as a physical barrier to noise but also has additional community benefits such as improved mental health and reduced violence.
  • Education about the harmful effects of noise and community-based organizations may also play a role in reducing noise.

With widening disparities in noise pollution, urgent community-based interventions are needed to halt their disproportionate prevalence in economically disadvantaged communities.

But all is not lost!

Kids learning about noise pollution in class

Governments and communities are implementing policies and regulations to reduce noise levels in residential areas and public spaces. Technology is also being developed to reduce noise pollution, such as electric vehicles, quieter airplanes, and sound-blocking and sound-absorbing materials.

Moreover, with increased education, people are starting to recognize the importance of quiet spaces and the benefits of a quieter environment. They are taking personal responsibility to reduce noise levels by using quieter equipment and appliances, choosing quieter modes of transportation, and being mindful of noise levels in their daily activities.

Overall, while noise pollution remains a significant issue, the increasing awareness and actions being taken to mitigate it provide reasons for optimism and hope for a quieter and more peaceful future.

What are our options to curb the harmful effects of noise?

There are several measures we can take to mitigate the harmful effects of noise pollution:

  1. Noise-reducing measures: The first step is to reduce the noise pollution in your environment: by using noise-reducing measures such as double-paned windows, insulation, and sound barriers. If you live in an apartment, the landlord may be responsible for providing noise abatement measures.
  2. Relocation: If noise-reducing measures are not feasible or effective, you may need to consider relocating to a quieter area. However, this may not be financially feasible for everyone.
  3. Community advocacy: You and other affected community members can band together to advocate for noise-reducing measures, such as noise-reducing asphalt, better zoning laws, and other policies that promote quieter environments.
  4. Coping strategies: You can also develop coping strategies to deal with the effects of noise pollution, including relaxation techniques, exercise, and seeking social support.
  5. Health interventions: If you are experiencing physical or mental health problems due to noise pollution, you may need medical interventions such as medication or therapy.
  6. Education: Education is also crucial to raise awareness about the harmful effects of noise pollution and how to mitigate them; this can involve public education campaigns, school programs, and community workshops
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Sheridan Walter is a medical doctor passionate about advancing the well-being of individuals and communities. With a master's degree in applied ethics, Sheridan enjoys exploring complex issues related to healthcare and social justice and is committed to engaging in critical dialogue to promote positive change.

3 responses to “Noise Pollution and Environmental Injustice: Why marginalized communities are at greater risk”

  1. Virginia says:

    I live in an underserved community, and as a student Nurse, I find it difficult to study because of all the noise. It’s terrible, I get extreme anxiety. More people should be made aware of this problem.

    • Indeed! More people should, and hopefully more people will, little by little, become aware of the impact noise pollution has on our society.

      We hope our content becomes a small contribution in this quest, so please feel free to share it with your community.

      Oh, one more thing, I don’t know if you are aware of this, but you might have some interesting psychic powers, as we are just working on an article about how noise affects studying!

  2. […] learning and memory have used loud and threatening noise that triggers stress-related mechanisms (the flight or fight response), which does not represent the reality of most people in average […]

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