When Beeps & Zooms Interrupt Your Dreams

Traffic noise pollution disturbing sleep can have physical and mental health implications

(RxWiki News) The beeps, the zooms, the revs, the lumbering semis… Living near a busy highway often means little peace and quiet. But constant annoying traffic noise can affect health too.

A recent study looked at the risk of high noise pollution in a busy part of Fulton County, Georgia.

The researchers found that the traffic noise is probably disturbing a lot of people's sleep and mental health — which has implications for their physical health too.

"Use white noise or ear plugs to sleep."

This study was a bit different than most because it did not actually document that sleep disturbance was occuring. Instead, it estimated how likely it is that there are people being disturbed by the traffic noise.

The study, led by Minho Kim, PhD, from the Department of Geography at Sangmyung University in South Korea, looked at Atlanta and surrounding areas, where interstate 285 is part of a busy network of roads.

While traffic noise may seem like simply an annoying feature of day-to-day life, long-term effects of exposure to noise pollution can impact people's physical and mental health, according to co-author James B. Holt, PhD.

Dr. Holt works in the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Long-term exposure to noise could increase the risks of heart attack and high blood pressure. Nighttime noise can reduce sleep quality and increase morning tiredness and insomnia," wrote Dr. Holt.

Additionally, the World Health Organization recently included environmental noise on its list of harmful pollution types.

For this study, the researchers gathered data on the area's geography, the number of cars going through it, their speed and the types of vehicles in the area.

They used the U.S. Federal Highway Administration's Traffic Noise Model to estimate the road traffic noise created in different areas during day and night.

Then they used this information to estimate how likely it was that some of the people in areas with noisier traffic would have trouble sleeping or become annoyed by the traffic noise.

Overall, their estimates were that 9.5 percent of the population were likely to be highly annoyed by the traffic noise, and 2.3 percent were likely to experience disturbed sleep from the noise.

Most of the people possibly affected live in Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Alpharetta and Roswell, especially in the areas around I-285.

The community with the highest risk of sleep problems or annoyance from traffic is College Park.

The researchers calculated that 11.3 percent of the residents were likely to be negatively affected by the traffic noise during the day, and 3.7 percent of them probably had disturbed sleep at night.

The researchers noted, however, that this is just one metropolitan area in the U.S. "It may be assumed that even more people would be affected in other densely populated areas of the US," Dr. Holt noted in a release about the study.

What should you do if you live in a busy area where traffic noise or other city sounds keep you up?

For night time, consider using white noise or ear plugs, suggests William Kohler, MD, the director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill, Florida.

"There are various environmental things you can do to help your sleep," he said. "Your own white noise, whether it be a fan, low grade music or something else, can help drown out the other sounds."

However, as Dr. Kohler notes, this study is more a noise pollution study than a sleep study and could not be considered an adequate study of actual sleep outcomes.

"They estimated those who could be sleep disturbed based on the noise levels, but everything is estimated and assumed instead of actually documented," Dr. Kohler said.

The point, therefore, is to recognize that the potential for sleep disturbance is there, and people exposed to similar forms of noise pollution should consider ways they can ensure their sleep will not be disturbed.

The study was published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study was funded by the 2011 Research Fund of the University of Seoul in South Korea. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 11, 2012