Noisy neighbours are more than just a nuisance, they can also cause health problems
Why does your body equate noise with stress, and how does sleep disruption caused by noise increase your risks of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease?
If you live in a Housing Development Board (HDB) flat, you might sometimes wonder what your neighbours get up to based on the sounds they make.
What could they possibly need to do that requires them to drag heavy furniture across the living room every day? Why does it sound like a stampede above you when it’s already past midnight? And why would they need to carry out home improvement manoeuvres such as drilling and hammering every single weekend when it’s not even 9am yet?
We may never know the answers. But one thing’s for sure: We are getting more and more fed up with noisy neighbours. Complaints relating to noise from fellow residents have increased by about 25 per cent, from 2,500 cases a month in 2020 to 3,200 cases a month in 2021, revealed National Development Minister Desmond Lee in response to a parliamentary question on Feb 14.
MORE THAN A NUISANCE
Noisy neighbours are more than a nuisance, according to a report published in the journal Applied Economics in April 2022. They may also cause health problems, said Assistant Professor Fan Yi from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Real Estate, who conducted the study with London School of Economics’s Associate Professor Diana Weinhold.
The study is based on a longitudinal survey (from 2008 to 2013) of over 5,000 Dutch adults to investigate the relationship between self-reported sleep disruption and health. The findings suggested that the combination of neighbour noise and sleep disruption could lead to ill health.
“While neighbour noise has traditionally been viewed as more of a nuisance than a public health issue, growing evidence of the health costs associated with disrupted sleep should prompt serious discussion among policymakers and urban planners,” said Asst Prof Fan.
“Noise control becomes even more vital in a dense urban environment like Singapore, where over 95 per cent of households reside in flats or apartments,” she said.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF NOISE ON HEALTH?
Nobel Prize winner Robert Koch said in 1910 that, “One day, man will have to fight noise as fiercely as cholera and pest”. Fast forward to 2022 and he was spot on. It certainly doesn’t sound good when noise, such as the ones created by neighbours, is regarded as the “new secondhand smoke” in a study published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
JUST HOW NOISY IS SINGAPORE?
Singapore is noisy. The average noise levels of the residential areas in bigger, busier cities such as Shanghai (57 decibels or dB), Hong Kong (60dB), Seoul (61dB) and London (66dB) are lower than Singapore’s 69.4dB, according to a 2017 study conducted by National University of Singapore researchers.
This noise level exceeds the National Environmental Agency's recommendation of no more than 67dB per hour on average. It is just a little shy of the World Health Organization’s guideline of 70dB – which is a level equivalent to a washing machine in use. And it is a level that can cause you to feel very annoyed.
You may think that our natural environment is already noisy (think bird calls, gusty winds, leaves rustling), so even without your neighbours’ contributions, it is a noisy world we live in. But other than loud events such as thunderstorms and earthquakes, sounds in nature are actually low and register just between 20dB and 30dB, according to the study.
And for good reason, too. In nature, loud noise often indicates danger and causes “fight or flight” responses, mentioned the same study. “Noise causes almost instantaneous increases in blood pressure and pulse”, and releases stress hormones. In other studies, noise has also been found to cause inflammation of the vascular lining, which can be a precursor to cardiovascular disease.
In another study, inadequate, interrupted or poor-quality sleep created by noise is associated with a multitude of ailments, including anxiety, obesity, depression, hypertension, diabetes, dementia and increased mortality. And it has been proven in studies that noise, particularly night-time noise, is associated with an increased incidence of arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction and stroke.
Even when the noise is not loud enough to wake you up from sleep, it may still cause electroencephalogram changes and result in increases in heart rate, according to a study on sleep disruption due to hospital noises. Changes in heart rate may be an indicator for long-term cardiovascular health.
And it’s not only heart and blood pressure issues that can crop up when noise interferes with sleep, said Asst Prof Fan. Studies have found evidence that sleep duration can “interact powerfully with both inflammatory processes and the immune system” and that sleep quality could be “linked to a variety of undesirable health outcomes in people, including problems of the bone and joint problems and lung disease”, she said.
BAD “VIBES” AND OTHER FACTORS THAT WORSEN NOISE’S EFFECTS
While there are recommended noise limits for the bedroom (about 30dB or the level of a whisper, according to the WHO), none exists when it comes to vibrations, which can be caused by renovation works, loud KTV speakers or even the passing MRT train.
“A few studies found that vibration does have negative impact on health. Similar to noise exposure, vibration exposure will cause sleep disturbance and disturbance of concentration, either presented alone or in combination with noise,” said Asst Prof Fan. In fact, vibrations, regardless of noise, “were found to have a significant impact on perceived poor sleep, lead to greater difficulty falling asleep and cause more tiredness in the mornings” in this study.
What about the effects of the living conditions (such as small or dark dwellings) on people’s susceptibility to noise’s ill effects? Those factors are “unlikely to be first-order drivers of the observed correlations between sleep disturbance and health outcomes”, according to the report that Asst Prof Fan co-authored. However, the study did note that “individuals who are more easily disturbed are indeed more likely to experience ill health across most of health conditions”.
The duration and loudness of the noise certainly matter. “The loss of healthy life years in respect to noise exposure was discussed by the WHO, and they published a report indicating noise limits according to health effects. Combined with the guidelines proposed by previous research, we can observe decibel threshold for some ill heal effects,” said Asst Prof Fan.
For example, being exposed to eight continuous hours of noise that exceeds 30dB is likely to cause sleep disruption. The damage escalates when both the duration and loudness are higher; for instance, being exposed to 24 hours of noise over 70dB will cause hearing loss, said Asst Prof Fan.
“When the day-evening-night noise level exceeds 40dB, it may cause annoyance. When the Lden (a descriptor of noise level over a whole day) exceeds 45dB, people may suffer disturbance of concentration and interference with learning. When Lden exceeds 53dB, more severe ill effect such as cardiovascular disease may occur,” said Asst Prof Fan.
In Singapore, the Community Advisory Panel has been set up to engage members of the public to establish “community norms” when it comes to noise as well as facilitate mediation and decision-making at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal. And if you're in the unfortunate situation of living with a noisy neighbour, you could bring your case to the Community Mediation Centre, which is overseen by the Ministry of Law.