What do you hear when you go outside? Maybe it's just birds singing and kids playing, but depending on where you live, you're also likely to hear something less pleasant: noise pollution.
More than 97 percent of people in the U.S. have the potential to be exposed to low-level noise from airplanes and highways, according to a new National Transportation Noise Map from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. At levels below 50 decibels, that's about the same level of noise as a humming refrigerator.
A significantly smaller group of Americans might be exposed to higher levels of aviation and highway noise. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population has the potential to be exposed to noise levels of 80 decibels or more. That's about as loud as a garbage disposal.
Check out the map below. You'll see that the areas surrounding big cities are more colorful, meaning they're noisier. If you click on the map itself, you can search by city name, ZIP code or even narrow it down to your address.
For example, here's a snapshot of noise pollution in the New York City area:
According to a release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the purpose of the map is "to facilitate the tracking of trends in transportation-related noise, by mode, and collectively for multiple transportation modes. The data allow viewing the national picture of potential exposure to aviation and highway noise. The data also allow viewing of the potential exposure at the state or county level."
The map uses 2014 data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to determine the average number of daily flight operations from airports across the country and daily noise levels for automobiles, medium trucks and heavy trucks to determine traffic road noise. The map only considers transportation noise and not other ambient noise sources.
An audiologist weighs in
We wanted to know more, so we asked certified audiologist Pamela Mason, M.Ed, CCC-A, to look at the map. Mason, director of audiology professional practices for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says her first impression was surprise.
"I was surprised that more than 97 percent of people in the U.S. are exposed to less than 50 db aviation and traffic noise. That's lower than the level I'm talking," she says. "That is not a level than damages hearing but it could be annoying. It's really soft."
For healthy hearing, you can listen to 75 decibels all day and it's not going to damage your hearing, Mason says. To put things into perspective, conversation is about 60-65 db.
Mason says she lives in the Washington, D.C., area where communities near the airport are impacted by airplanes landing every few minutes.
"It may not be enough to hurt your hearing, but it certainly can interrupt your quality of life," she says.
There are plenty of other communities in the U.S. where noise pollution may be an issue outside of aviation sounds and interstate noise. For example, the study only takes into account highway noise versus the constant hum of surface streets. And there are many other types of noises in a community that can be annoying — things like construction noises and early garbage pickup, for example. But these noises fall outside the scope of this report.
"There are two ways of looking at noise: Is it damaging to your hearing or are you looking at the non-auditory effects of noise?" Mason asks.
For example, your quality of life can be disrupted by some of the side effects. You can have intestinal problems or stress headaches or even trouble communicating because of noise.
"These non-auditory effects include the annoyance factor," she says. "It may not be loud enough to damage hearing, but it may be enough to be annoying."