Experts on Camera

Dr. Erica Walker: Noise pollution and human health

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Harmful noise pollution comes from a variety of expected and surprising sources, including mass transit systems, leaf blowers, and even cryptocurrency mines. The United Nations Environment Programme Frontiers report for 2022 describes noise pollution as “a top environmental risk to health” affecting sleep, heart health, and more.

On Wednesday, September 21, 2022, SciLine interviewed: Erica Walker, the RGSS Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Community Noise Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health. She discussed topics including: what factors contribute to noise pollution in different settings; the short- and long-term impacts of noise pollution on human health; how individuals can reduce the noise they produce and the noise they are exposed to; how noise pollution impacts people differently, including impact disparities; and trends in noise pollution, and how it interacts with other environmental exposures.

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ERICA WALKER: My name is Erica Walker, and I’m the RGSS assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. I also run a lab here called Community Noise Lab.


Interview with SciLine

What is noise pollution?


ERICA WALKER: Noise pollution is any unwanted sounds that persist in our environments.

Is everyone exposed to the same amount of noise pollution, or are some groups disproportionately impacted?


ERICA WALKER: Sound and noise issues are very place-dependent. What we found in our research is that, typically, communities that are near major modes of transportation—like major highways, major aircraft paths, major railways—are the ones—or major industrial activities—are the ones who receive the brunt of the noise exposures. But then when you ask yourself, well, who lives in those communities? It tends to be people who have a lower socioeconomic status. So unfortunately, I think that noise impacts poor people more than wealthier people.

Why does noise pollution affect low-income people more than others?


ERICA WALKER: When you think about proximity to railways, proximity to roads, proximity to airports, proximity to industry, you begin to ask yourself, who lives here? And then when you think about who lives here, you tend to see that it’s probably people who can’t afford to live in, you know, really nice, leafy suburb.

How does noise pollution affect children?


ERICA WALKER: Children, especially, have these critical windows for development. So, if there is noise exposure—intense noise exposure—in those areas of critical development and it causes them to miss out on that critical development, then we’re going to have a chronic or even long-term issues when it comes to cognitive function, learning, reading, et cetera.

Have you seen any examples of localities addressing noise pollution?


ERICA WALKER: No one is really talking about the aspects of sound that were intentional—the intentional placement of poor and vulnerable people in communities that are next to major sources of sound. So, I think that any—I think that ground zero would be the recognition of the poor urban planning and a process for fixing that and making sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

You advised the city of Asheville, N.C., as city leaders sought to address noise pollution there. What did you conclude from that process?


ERICA WALKER: For a city like Asheville to even think about redoing their noise ordinance—updating it and thinking about ways that they can make it a better legal working document—was great. But then their desire to include all kinds of voices across race, socioeconomic status, spatial distribution I thought was unheard of.