Over the past year, one thing has been abundantly clear: life has never been quieter. Cities, usually the most egregious offenders of noise pollution, grinded to a halt. Gatherings both inside and outside the home either were reduced by capacity or did not take place at all. Concerts became nonexistent and sports games played on, but without spectators. Despite limited fan attendance in most places, the crowd, either in-person or on television, does not have the same buzz that it did before the pandemic. Teams have had to pump in artificial crowd noise just to emulate any type of normal game day experience, with mixed results. Even if your occupation revolves around sound (or measuring sound) and has continued through the pandemic, there has likely never been a greater contrast between the noise experienced during your job, and the lack of noise outside of it.
So, how much did the pandemic affect noise pollution? A study undertaken by Apple and the University of Michigan found that in four states (California, Florida, New York, and Texas), the average sound exposure measured by A-weighted decibels (dBA) decreased from 73.2 dBA to 70.6 dBA. This may not seem like a lot, but a 3 dBA reduction represents a halving of sound energy (and therefore, a halving of the amount of the energy participants were exposed to). In a normal environment pre-pandemic, lower exposures would take place during the week (specifically Monday) and the highest would take place on Saturdays. With the contrast of the quieter working week and the more socially active weekend, these numbers are to be expected. During lockdown, 99% of the study’s participants registered a decrease in time spent above 75 dBA between Friday and Sunday, and the increase between Monday and Saturday decreased by 1.1 dBA. This means that the levels between the weekdays and the weekends were more consistent, influenced by factors such as not going to work on a regular basis and not attending events with big crowds. Rather, it was more of the same, silence amid uncertainty.
Now, with vaccinations picking up, and more restrictions being lifted, there is a chance we could see noise levels quickly rise to pre-pandemic levels. The numbers in the study indicated a halving of sound energy from 73.2 to 70.6 dBA during the lockdown period. A 3 dBA reduction in average sound levels over 70 dBA is associated with a lower risk of noise-induced hearing loss and could have a positive impact on sound-related health impacts such as ischemic heart disease, hypertension, and cognitive performance. With the return to normal, there is the possibility that your life will again be affected by external factors that are both outside of your control and can have a negative effect on your health. One thing that you can do as you transition back to normal is to try to limit your exposure to these external factors as best as you can.
For example, the average volume during an NFL game is estimated to be in the mid-90 decibel range, which emits about the same sound level as an active power tool. In some stadiums, this number could be 20 or 30 decibels higher. Over time, sounds that are louder than 85 decibels can lead to noise-induced hearing loss. This loss can hasten if you are exposed to that level of sound for a longer, more repetitive amount of time. So instead of watching every game at the packed stadium, you can split watching games between there, a bar, or your home. A bar or your home environment can still be louder than normal, but it creates a more manageable situation than a stadium, which is filled with 70,000+ people that you cannot control. Another thing you can do is limit your exposure by wearing protective equipment, such as earplugs. At first thought, you might think that by wearing earplugs to a concert, music festival, or sports games, you will not hear anything and will be completely taken out of the experience. That is not true, as there are many earplugs on the market that filter sound to a normal level instead of fully blocking it out.
The most efficient way of measuring sound is through a portable sound level meter. Bomark sells models of sound level meters by TSI Quest that accurately measure noise levels in highly variable environments, including the SoundPro SE-DL Series, the Sound Examiner SE-400 Series, and Sound Detector SD-200. These types of instruments have many applications, including environmental noise assessments and general acoustic analysis. While you might think that there is more application for these instruments in a professional or industrial environment than a personal one, that is not true. As indicated in this blog, there are many ways that noise pollution and sounds ingratiate themselves into our lives, and many times, it comes from influences outside of personal control. Knowing when an area is loud or disruptive enough to do damage to your health can help you take preventative measures that will give you the ability to control the situation. Continue to take steps to stay safe.