Evans, A. Environmental Noise Pollution: Has Public Health Become Too Utilitarian?

Evans, A. (2017) Environmental Noise Pollution: Has Public Health Become too Utilitarian? Open Journal of Social Sciences, 5, 80-109. https://doi.org/10.4236/jss.2017.55007

May 12, 2017


Environmental noise pollution is an ever-increasing problem. The various sources: Aircraft, Road Traffic and Wind Farms are reviewed, but the latter source, because of the intrusive, impulsive and incessant nature of the sound emitted, is the major focus of this review. Wind turbines produce a range of sound but it is the Infrasound and low frequency noise which deserves special attention. Infrasound is considered to be below the range of human hearing so it is not measured in routine noise assessments in the wind farm planning process. There is, however, evidence that many can register it and a sizeable minority is sensitive, or becomes sensitised to it. The actual route of transmission still requires elucidation. The net effect of the entire range of noise produced is interference with sleep and sleep deprivation. Sleep, far from being a luxury is vitally important to health and insufficient sleep, in the long term, is associated with a spectrum of diseases, particularly Cardiovascular. The physiological benefits of sleep are reviewed, as is the range of diseases which the sleep-deprived are predisposed to. Governments, anxious to meet Green targets and often receiving most of their advice on health matters from the wind industry, must commission independent studies so that the Health and Human Rights of their rural citizens is not infringed. Public Health, in particular, must remember its roots in Utilitarianism which condoned the acceptance of some Collateral Damage provided that the greatest happiness of the greatest number was ensured. The degree of Collateral Damage caused by wind farms should be totally unacceptable to Public Health which must, like good government, fully exercise the Precautionary Principle. The types of study which should be considered are discussed. Indeed, the father of Utilitarian Philosophy, Jeremy Bentham, urged that government policy should be fully evalu- ated.


There are a number of emerging threats to Public Health, and some of these can be directly ascribed to human activity, chief among which are Global Warming, air pollution and environmental noise pollution. This paper will concentrate on the issue of environmental noise pollution and examine how modern Public Health has lived up to its responsibilities in controlling it. Over a century ago, the Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist, Robert Koch, predicted [1] “One day man will have to fight noise as fiercely as cholera and pest (plague).” The accuracy of this prediction is attested to by the statement [2] from the United States Environmental Protection Agency that, “The over-all loudness of environmental noise has been doubling every ten years in pace with social and industrial growth, and, if allowed to continue unchecked, the cost of alleviating it in the future may be insurmountable.” Perhaps surprisingly, this statement is more than 40 years old, yet the problem has been growing, unchecked, ever since.

From an evolutionary perspective, an awareness of sound is essential to alert us of incipient danger, but our aural acuity may have left us vulnerable to when it is present in excess. The earliest problems arose with the introduction of noisy industrial processes a couple of centuries ago, which induced deafness [3]. We are now being bombarded with noise pollution from diverse sources, which pre-disposes us to a range of diseases. Light radiation ranges from Ultraviolet to Infrared, and apart from its intensity, its wavelength will determine its effect on the receiver: typically different wavelengths in the Ultraviolet range have different effects on our skin [4]. Similarly, it is not just the amplitude of noise which brings health consequences, but also, its “frequency content” (considering the sound as a stimulus rather than how frequency in the audible range is perceived as pitch).

Sound is caused by a series of pressure pulsations, or more broadly, by changes in air pressure. The spectrum of sound [4] frequency ranges from >1 to more than 20,000 cycles per second or Hz, with the range up to 20 Hz classified [5] as Infrasound, >20 – 200 Hz as low frequency sound (the lowest note on a piano has a frequency of 33 Hz and Middle C, 262 Hz [6]), >200 – 20,000 Hz as the human auditory range, and >20,000 Hz as Ultrasound. Strictly, pressure pulsations outside our auditory range cannot be described as sound but they are still able to exert an effect on us [5].

As with light, sound’s effects on human health are not only determined by its intensity, or amplitude, but also by its frequency and the rate of change in am- plitude. The term Infrasound is confusing, because how could sound which we are unable to hear have an effect on us? Perhaps a better way to look at it would be in terms of pressure pulsations. There is increasing evidence that Infrasound is perceived by the brain [7], and possibly by other sensory systems’ vibratory receptors [8]: in the vestibular organ of balance, skin and joints, rather than by those transmitting auditory sensation [7]. Another problem with noise in the lower registers is that it persists longer, travels further and, thanks to diffraction, can turn corners [6].

This, from another evolutionary perspective, is no surprise. Many of our fellow mammals use Infrasound extensively for communication: e.g., giraffes, rhinoceroses, whales and elephants—the latter are capable of sensing distant thunderstorms, because of the Infrasound the storms emit, from over a hundred kilometres away [9], and set off in that direction in the knowledge that they will find water and green vegetation to consume. Humans carry a large range of genes which were acquired in our evolutionary past, but which are now redundant. Sometimes however, these are expressed, for example when, occasionally, someone grows a tail [10]. Olfactory receptor (OR) genes provide a good example of genes which humans possess but do not express. Mammals have over 1000 OR genes and these constitute the largest mammalian gene superfamily. In humans about 60% of these are pseudogenes and have been annulled through mutation [11]. In other primates, the pseudogene rate is about half of this. It is postulated that reduced chemosensory dependence in man drives this OR gene disruption. Individual differences in gene-expression might also explain why a small, but significant, proportion of the population may be more sensitive to the effects of Infrasound than others, and to noise in general [7]. An alternative hypothesis is that sufferers have been “sensitized” through past exposure [5], although both factors could contribute.

This review will concentrate on the adverse health effects associated with en- vironmental noise, particularly those due to the Infrasound and low frequency noise emitted by industrial wind turbines. Some of the adverse health effects are due to sleep deprivation, and the evidence linking it to several diseases, particularly cardiovascular, will be discussed. The control of wind farm noise emissions, and its effectiveness, will be reviewed along with the appropriateness of the Guidelines governing noise limits, and where wind farms are sited. The studies which need to be mounted will then be described. The history of Public Health will be discussed, including the seminal role that Utilitarian Philosophy (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) played in its inception. The response of Public Health to new health threats will be evaluated in the light of the concepts of Collateral Damage and the Precautionary Principle. The overall aim is to evaluate the adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines and the adequacy of the Public Health response to the problems arising. In particular, the adequacy of the protection of the Health and Human Rights of rural citizens whose health is compromised by wind turbines will be scrutinized.

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