Internews Center for Innovation & Learning

Internews Center for Innovation & Learning
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Can You Hear It Now? Using Sensors to Report on Noise Pollution

[Guest Blog post by Willie Shubert and James Fahn from the Earth Journalism Network. Willie is the Senior Project Coordinator for Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. James Fahn is the Global Director of Internews’ Environmental Programs and Executive Director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, which connects over 4,500 journalists covering environmental issues around the world]

Hearing evolved to alert humans to changes in their environments.  But as our environments have gotten louder, our brains haven’t exactly evolved a mute button to cope with the change.  The sounds we hear become noise when they are unwanted—interfering with thinking, concentrating, working, talking, listening, or sleeping. The unpleasant feelings that arise from a loud living space that interferes with thoughts, feelings, or activities actually have a technical term—noise annoyance—that urban planners and public health experts use as a metric to gage the effectiveness of actions taken to minimize the impacts of noise.

While urban noise may seem inevitable and unavoidable, even the densest and most active places can take steps to limit noise. For environmental journalists, exploring the nuisance of noise pollution can open up new angles on critical urban quality of life and sustainable development issues as cities continue to expand in size, scope, and importance.

To facilitate this extension of environmental health reporting, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) is working with Edmund Seto, an environmental health researcher from the University of Washington and Rajiv Bhatia, a public health specialist formerly with the City of San Francisco, to build a low cost, web-connected decibel monitor that can be deployed to enhance the quality of data journalism about noise pollution.  

More than a nuisance.  How does noise impact health?

Despite the terminology, noise it not just an annoyance, it is a biological stressor. The concrete health impacts of noise depend on the intensity of noise, on the duration of exposure, and the context of exposure.  

Perhaps the most intuitive heath impact of noise is sleep disturbance, which can begin at relatively modest noise levels of around 40 decibels (dB). The level of noise produced by a busy road, the proportion affected by sleep disturbance becomes significant.  Average nighttime noise level of 65 dB will result in self-reported disturbance of sleep in about 15% percent of the population. A single noise event at 80 dB will result in awakenings in about a third of the population.

Even if noise isn’t forcing you to wake up, noise produces measurable physiological reactions, such as increase in heart rate and body movements and can cause disturbances of natural sleep patterns by causing shifts from deep to lighter stages. People affected by noise may get up "tired" or "not rested" in the morning.

During the day, moderate levels of noise can limit or interfere with the ability to conduct daily tasks and activity — to have an ordinary conversation, enjoy a leisure activities, rest, sleep, concentrate or get tasks done. Noise from moderate levels of road traffic impairs cognitive functioning in children, including attention, concentration, sound discrimination, memory, and reading ability.  Some children exposed to moderate levels of road traffic noise develop deficits in reading ability and suffer lower school in school performance.

On a biological level, noise triggers autonomic chemical mechanisms for arousal and alertness. Long term exposure to noise from road, rail, and air traffic results in physiological and psychological stress, which may contribute to heart disease, and high blood pressure. In the long-term, chronic or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB can cause hearing loss.

Why collect noise data? What’s the angle here?  

Noise is one of the most common forms of pollution and has an immediate effect on health and well-being. But it is not widely reported as a journalistic issue, perhaps because its effects are less obvious than any other environmental health factors such as air and water pollution. It therefore represents a great opportunity for journalists to explore a topic that has a profound effect on people that isn’t widely recognized.

In theory, it seems like it should be easy to acquire and use a noise sensor that would let anyone collect data on the topic, perhaps in the form of a smart phone app. But it turns out that, according to Bhatia, there are no such apps that are readily available and also reliable enough to collect credible data. For some angles, finding proper placement for the sensors – for instance, outside of bedrooms to investigate sleep disturbance – is also important.

So the development and deployment of a cheap and reliable sensor could be a boon to journalists. EJN plans to provide the sensors being developed by Seto to a contingent of international journalists who will be visiting Berkeley later this month to attend a conference EJN is organizing on sensor journalism.

The journalists will get a chance to work with the sensors, test them out in both noisy and quiet environments and brainstorm potential story ideas that they can follow up on back home, both individually and perhaps as part of a broader collaboration.

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