Noise pollution is one of the biggest health risks in city life

May 24, 2018 by Joanna Roberts, From Horizon Magazine, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine
Traffic noise increases people's blood pressure which is related to heart attacks and strokes. Credit: Albarubescens, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Noise is one of the biggest pollutants in modern cities but the risk is often overlooked despite being linked to an increased risk of early death, according to research conducted by scientists.

'Noise produces a stimulus to the central nervous system and this stimulus releases some hormones,' said Dr. David Rojas from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. '(This) increases the risk of hypertension, and hypertension has been related with many other cardiovascular (and) cerebrovascular diseases like infarction (heart attacks) and strokes.'

He was speaking in Brussels, Belgium, on 23 May at the annual Green Week conference, part of a Europe-wide event to help people swap best practices on environmental activities and policies. This year's focus is how the EU is helping cities to become better places to live and work.

Dr. Rojas, an environmental health researcher, says that despite the fact that pollution is a major public health problem in cities – and, in fact, beats air pollution as a risk factor in Barcelona – there is a tendency to overlook the problem because we can tune it out.

'When we have a background noise, the brain has the capacity to adapt to this noise,' he said. 'And you don't see it as an annoyance so much and you start to accept and adapt. But even if you are not conscious of the noise, this is still stimulating your organic system.'

Dr. Rojas' research, which was carried out under the HELIX and PASTA projects, gathered data on the multiplicity of pollutants that we encounter in cities. He hopes the findings can be used to shape policies that could help improve health in .

For example, improving cycling infrastructure and encouraging parents to walk their children to school could not only cut noise and air pollution but would also improve levels of physical activity.

Multiple benefits

'There are multiple benefits of good urban design,' said Dr. Rojas. 'It's not only air pollution or noise, it's also , green spaces, (and) heat.'

As part of the HELIX project, Dr. Rojas and his team measured the impact of encouraging all children who lived within 1 kilometre of a school to walk there each day. The result was a dramatic improvement in children's health by reducing high blood pressure and obesity, as well as by avoiding a slew of minor road traffic injuries.

Their findings are also challenging the common misconceptions about whether the harm caused by air pollution counteracts the benefits of walking or cycling in cities. 'The benefit is 70 times bigger than the risk,' said Dr. Rojas.

He added that while pregnant women and young children were particularly vulnerable to urban pollutants, the problem affects everybody, regardless of life stage, resulting in a large public health burden.

'In the case of , even if we feel that we are not vulnerable – we are adults and we are healthy – we are suffering from this exposure. We are losing quality of life and quantity of life because we are exposed to these pollutants.'

The conference also heard about some of the nature-based innovations, such as urban greening, that are being adopted throughout Europe in order to improve the quality of city life.

Community gardens, living walls, and putting greenery in so-called grey spaces such as railway lines, are all examples of attempts to make urban areas more natural places to live and work, according to Dr. Dora Almassy from the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

Nature-based solutions

She has helped to compile a database of nature-based solutions being used in towns and cities around Europe to produce an urban nature atlas as part of a project called Naturvation.

'More than half of the projects (in the database) provided benefits for the health and wellbeing of the citizens,' she said.

This is because they create a healthier working environment and provide space for more leisure and recreational activities. Spending time in green spaces has also been linked to improved mental health, while such projects can also be used for food production and education. But not all of the projects achieve the same benefits for those who use them.

'Certain types of nature-based solutions are better placed to improve the health of the citizens,' said Dr. Almassy. 'These are community gardens, parks, or simple green grey infrastructures and … green roofs and green facades.'

One example is Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, UK, which is was designed to have green spaces inside and out, exposing the children being treated there to a more natural environment. The plants are also used to produce food, which is then supplied to the hospital canteen.

Dr. Almassy said that many of these projects are reliant upon the public sector for funding and execution, so future research needs to look at business models that will encourage companies and individuals to contribute to a green urban environment.

Dr. Rojas added that another big challenge for the future will be to combine the data on different environmental factors to produce models that can give far more comprehensive predictions for policy decisions.

'When you are in the city, we are not exposed to a single pollutant, we are exposed to a mix of things,' he said. 'We need to think of how we can approach in a better way this complexity of exposure. The urban environment is more than a single thing.'

Explore further: Living close to green spaces is associated with better attention in children

Related Stories

Living close to green spaces is associated with better attention in children

October 26, 2017
Natural surroundings, including green spaces, may be beneficial for brain development in children, but evidence is still limited. A previous ISGlobal study indicated that green spaces within and surrounding schools could ...

Asthma attacks reduced in tree-lined urban neighborhoods

November 17, 2017
People living in polluted urban areas are far less likely to be admitted to hospital with asthma when there are lots of trees in their neighbourhood, a study by the University of Exeter's medical school has found.

Recommended for you

Experts caution study on plastics in humans is premature

October 23, 2018
Scientists in Austria say they've detected tiny bits of plastic in people's stool for the first time, but experts caution the study is too small and premature to draw any credible conclusion.

Can organic food help you reduce your risk of cancer? A new study suggests the answer may be yes

October 22, 2018
To reduce your risk of cancer, you know you should quit smoking, exercise regularly, wear sunscreen, and take advantage of screening tests. New research suggests another item might be added to this list: Choose organic foods ...

A topical gel that can prevent nerve damage due to spraying crops with pesticides

October 22, 2018
A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in India has developed a topical get that can be used by farmers to prevent nerve damage due to chemical crop spraying. In their paper published in the journal Science ...

Moderate exercise before conception resulted in lower body weight, increased insulin sensitivity of offspring

October 22, 2018
Men who want to have children in the near future should consider hitting the gym.

Modern conflict: Screen time vs. nature

October 22, 2018
Even rural kids today spend more time in front of screens and less time outdoors, according to a new study of middle-school students in South Carolina.

Community health workers can reduce hospitalizations by 65 percent and double patient satisfaction with primary care

October 22, 2018
Community health workers—trusted laypeople from local communities who help high-risk patients to address social issues like food and housing insecurity—can help reduce hospital stays by 65 percent and double the rate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.