The Big Number: The pandemic has lead to a quieter world

By Linda Searing,

U.S. residents have experienced a quieter world in recent months — about 3 decibels quieter than usual, according to University of Michigan research that compared noise levels in the environment before and after coronavirus-related social distancing and lockdown requirements took effect. That represents about a 50 percent drop in environmental noise exposure, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Environmental noise stems from such sources as traffic (cars, buses, trains, planes), commerce and industry, construction, sporting events, partying, dining and more. The study involved 5,894 adults (in California, Florida, New York and Texas) who were equipped with devices that recorded data on the sounds they were exposed to for roughly 90 days in spring 2020. Participants in New York experienced the largest reduction in sound, and Florida participants experienced the smallest. The overall drop brought the average environmental sound level below the level generally considered to carry health risks. Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common health problem related to sounds, but chronic exposure to loud noise also has been linked to hypertension, sleep problems, memory problems and more. The ability of sound to cause health problems depends not just on how loud the sound is but also on how long you are exposed to it.

The pandemic’s worldwide effect on noise was noted in a recent study in the journal Science. It found a 50 percent reduction in human-generated noise around the globe, based on data from earthquake detection equipment and attributed to changes in people’s activity since the novel coronavirus hit.

— Linda Searing

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