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Is city noise making us sick?

This week on Glad You Asked, we look into how noise can cause stress, interrupt sleep, and even shorten lives.

“It’s invisible, it’s colorless, it’s odorless, it’s a physical property rather than a chemical that you can actually smell in the air,” says Rick Neitzel, an exposure scientist at the University of Michigan. “But the European Union and the World Health Organization have accurately recognized this is a pollutant like any other in that it is an environmental hazard that can cause harm to human health.”

For this episode of Glad You Asked, I spoke to Neitzel about noise, an environmental nuisance that has gone largely ignored by US regulators since the 1980s but will be increasingly relevant as urbanization continues around the world.

Researchers are still disentangling when noise is merely annoying versus when it is unhealthy, and when annoyance becomes unhealthy, but two things are clear: Noise can cause a stress response in our bodies, and noise can interrupt our sleep, both of which can shorten lives after long-term exposure via cardiovascular and metabolic disease. At high levels it can also damage our hearing.

In New York City, noise complaints primarily target neighbors’ behavior: parties, music, and loud cars. But the most vulnerable populations may be those who aren’t submitting many complaints because they’ve lived with the exposure for too long to expect changes. After viewing some data collected by community noise researcher Erica Walker, I traveled to Chelsea, Massachusetts, a largely immigrant town located in the crosshairs of Boston Logan Airport’s runways, and spoke to residents for whom noise is one of many environmental hazards contributing to worse health outcomes.

Check out the full episode above to learn more about how noise pollution affects public health.

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