Noise pollution doesn't just drive some city dwellers up the wall. A new study shows that constant din can be harmful to your health, writes Julia Vidler

Monica Robb often wakes up at 3.45am. It's not through choice. She lives in Brentford and flights to Heathrow come in from the South and go out from the North. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and thinks that the planes droning overhead may well be to blame. "When the planes wake me up at 3.45, I spend the rest of the day like a zombie," says the 71-year-old. "I can't say categorically that noise is to blame for my high blood pressure, but I'm sure it has an effect."

She may not be imagining it. Evidence is growing that nuisance noise may be a health hazard – not just an irksome part of modern life. "Noise will damage your health," says Deepak Pashur, Professor of Audiology at University College, London. "We know that noise causes stress and that in turn causes cardiovascular and hormonal changes, leading to hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and hypertension. It can cause changes to the immune system, meaning that you are more likely to get ill."

Noise is now the most common cause of complaints to local authorities. The blare from next door's stereo or a dog whose bark is worse than his bite drive many city dwellers up the wall. Val Weedon, who runs the UK Noise Association, claims that her neighbour's music ruined her mental and physical health. "I suffered from bouts of shingles," says Weedon. "I was run down all the time and in floods of tears. In the end, I resigned from my job because I couldn't cope with going home and being unable to relax because of the music."

But it's not just private citizens who breach the peace. People who live near airports and busy roads are routinely exposed to noise louder than 55 decibels – a level considered harmful by the World Health Organisation. Last week, researchers in Sweden found that people living near Stockholm airport were 80 per cent more likely to suffer from high blood pressure. "We found an excess risk of high blood pressure with increasing noise levels around the airport," says Lars Jarup, who conducted the study. "The closer you are, the greater the health risk."

Earlier this year, researchers in Austria found that children living near noisy roads had raised blood pressure and heart rates, and higher levels of stress hormones. The researchers also discovered psychological effects. Many of the children had developed "learned helplessness" syndrome – a condition previously associated with some forms of depression and poverty.

"Noise affects children's motivation," says Deepak Pashur of University College. "If you take a rat and place it in a basket, it will try for days and months to get out. If you expose it to noise and then put it in the basket, it gives up after a few days. We see the same kind of effects in children. Children in a noisy situation give up more easily."

Dee Strange, head teacher of Beavers Community Primary School in Hounslow, under the Heathrow flight path, says her pupils' education is hampered by the constant drone overhead. "The noise definitely affects their learning environment. It can be very difficult for teachers to get the kids' attention because they are so used to blocking noise out."

It is this ability to block out what we don't want to hear that hides the dangers of noise pollution, says Deepak Pashur. "Because you've got used to a noisy road mentally, you don't think it's a problem. But physically, it takes longer. If a lorry goes past your house at night – even if you aren't woken up – you will still go through the same fright reactions."

Val Weedon says this is one reason why noise is the "forgotten pollutant". "Governments have left the public ignorant of the problem. It has already reached epidemic proportions. The message is that we adapt to it, but there are long-term implications. If governments don't act now, we're going to see a lot more illness."

The British Government is not acting yet. On the contrary, it has just given the go-ahead to another terminal at Heathrow. But the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently working on a consultation paper that may lead to a national noise strategy in "several years" time. In the meantime, Monica Robb, and thousands of others across London, are powerless to stop the noise pollution that blights their lives. "We've got to try and get the Government to realise that enough is enough, she says."

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