03 August 2012

Stephen Stansfeld: studying the effect of noise pollution on people’s health

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Although solutions are manifold, he goes as far as advocating the creation of quiet refuges in buildings

Caring about a sound environment, Stephen Stansfeld has been studying the effect of noise pollution on people’s health and their remedy. Although solutions are manifold, he goes as far as advocating the creation of quiet refuges in buildings and recognises the virtues of gardening away from big city bustle.

We all know from experience that too much noise is annoying. But noise has also been tied to serious life-threatening diseases. Aircraft noise and air traffic noise, for example, are linked to high blood pressure and have a small link to coronary heart disease too, research shows. At face value, noise as a pollutant “sounds terribly easy to measure, but it turns out not to be straightforward when you study it,” says Stephen Stansfeld, coordinator of the European Network on Noise and Health (ENNAH) project.

His interest in noise pollution’s effects goes back a long time. “I always felt that the environment in which people live is really important and has an effect on their wellbeing,” he explains, adding: “growing up and seeing the environment degraded inspired me to think that this was an area worth studying and it worth trying to preserve a good environment.”

True to this call, during his PhD in the late 80s, he looked at whether noise sensitivity was tied in with depression. His research showed that it was. And that there is some evidence that if you are ill, you can be more susceptible to noise.
From his base at Queen Mary, University of London, UK, Stansfeld explains how he was able to combine his keen interest in the environment and health through his latest research project involving 33 European research centres: “The whole purpose was to bring together different people working on noise and health and in different research areas across Europe and talk together about what might be the priorities in new research and bring people together to collaborate.” In parallel, the research network sought to embrace scientists working on air pollution, encouraging collaborations between noise and air pollution experts.

However, Stansfeld warns that “it is difficult to get money to do research on noise and health.”  This may be an indication of society’s failure to take noise pollutions seriously enough. This, he says, leads and put new housing close up against busy – and noisy – roads. He has encountered schools sited in noisy locations too. “Those [children] exposed to highest levels of aircraft noise had much poorer reading comprehension,” he says, speaking of results which came from one of his previous studies, known as the RANCH project.

The work of the ENNAH project, which is about to come to a close, has also found a consistent relationship between both aircraft and road traffic noise and high blood pressure.  It recommended further studies of aircraft noise and studies of emerging sources such as high-speed trains.

His current research project drew up a long to-do list. So much work lies ahead. For instance, it advised that exposure-response relationships between noise pollution and ischaemic heart disease, hypertension and stroke should be refined. Also, factors modifying how noise affects individuals should be considered, such as quiet refuges in buildings.

Applying his wisdom to reduce his risk of noise pollution impacting his own health, Stansfeld escapes London’s bustle when he can to go birdwatching in the English countryside in the county of Suffolk.  Another favourite location is the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland.  When not at Queen Mary, he may also be found gardening at his home in north London.

* Photo courtesy of Lesley Nott

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