beware: noise is hazardous to our children's development

Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly – Volume 22, Number 1 (1997)

noises impinge on the child's language, cognitive and learning abilities

“We can do something about noise and when we do, children profit!”

In the Time magazine’s special report on “How a Child’s Brain Develops” (February 3, 1997), one of the articles, “The Day-Care Dilemma” (Collins, February 3, 1997) began simply with the following statement: “Environment matters.” Collins goes on to say that what the baby “sees, hears and touches…” is critical to development. It is equally true that what the child doesn’t hear is also important, but how often do we think about or discuss the impact of those unnecessary intrusive sounds on the child’s development (other than effects of noise on hearing), or for that matter the crucial role quiet and solitude play in the child’s maturation process? The non-auditory effects of noise on a child’s overall development, the focus of this paper, has received too little attention.

life before birth

Development doesn’t commence with birth, nor do the impacts of the enveloping environment, and that is why the early intrauterine months are very influential in a child’s development. When Jones and Tauscher (1978) reported that infants born to mothers living near the Los Angeles airport were lower in birth weights and had greater numbers of birth defects, such as cleft palates, than did infants born to mothers living in quieter communities, there was concern that the neighboring planes were disruptive to the fetus’ development. Kryter (1985) doubts that the acoustic energy from the planes was being transmitted to the fetus through the mother’s tissues but rather believes that it was the annoyance and the fear of the planes that affected the mother’s tissues and fluids and this in turn affected the environment of the developing fetuses. Although other reports from European investigators confirmed the Jones and Tauscher findings, the data have not been sufficient to support a strong relationship between aircraft noise and fetal defects. However, the United States National Research Council (1982) decided to err on the safe side and urged pregnant women to avoid working in noisy industrial settings. Yet, how many individuals are aware of the Research Council’s recommendations? Should this information not be more readily available in this ever increasingly noisier society?

the home: quiet or noisy?

Now the baby is born! So many of our youngsters are born into an environment abounding with unnecessary noises — television sets blasting , stereo systems booming, speaking voices that are shouting rather than talking, and an overall level of sound that would make any person cringe. The newborn cannot withdraw, cannot escape and is a captive to the loud sounds all around him Are these sounds harmful? Yes, these noises impinge on language, cognitive and learning abilities.

According to Wachs and Gruen (1982), noise in the early home environment is a strong factor in slowing down language and cognitive development. They also found that these noisy homes were characterized by little interaction between parents and children. Wachs became interested in noise because he believed that so many economically disadvantaged children lived in homes that were overwhelmed by intrusive noises, and he is probably correct in proposing that the poorest youngsters in our society are indeed adversely more affected by noise. It should be noted that the National Urban Center was a recipient of a noise – abatement grant in 1980 and had intended to work on the problems of noise in poor Black communities, but before the Center could undertake its task, the United States government curtailed funding of noise projects. The nation’s noise abatement office is still closed, but there is some hope on the horizon in that a bill has been recently introduced to refund that office.

Noise is not confined to the homes of the poor because many affluent homes are also too noisy. The instruments of noise — television sets, computers, stereo systems, vacuum cleaners, and toys, yes toys — may be more plentiful in the homes of the middle – and upper – class. Add to this cacophony of sounds the voices that tend to be louder today than they once were. In my recent book Top of the Class (Abex, 1996), I had studied the lives of older high academic achievers, inquiring about their childhood homes and how they were reared. It was wonderful to learn that there were quiet times in their homes — quiet times for children to do their homework, to read and to think. There were no television sets, radio, and stereos blasting in the background. These high academic achievers also reported that their parents disciplined them with stern but moderate voices, not shouts and screams; most often all they needed was a ” look of disapproval.”

Unlike the homes where Wachs reported little interaction between parents and children, the academic achievers report much interaction. Parents read to them, engaged them in conversation, and listened to their thoughts and ideas, as well as their problems, when they grew older. Family meetings took place around the dining-room or kitchen table, where each member of the family shared his/her thoughts and experiences.

To busy parents who today spend too little time eating with their children in a quiet setting, but rather at some loud fast-food place, I urge you to rethink your present dining habits and set aside some quiet mealtimes in which you and your children can eat as well as converse. All parents should evaluate the noise levels of their homes, and if they are indeed very noisy, take steps to lower the sound level. Your children will most certainly reap benefits from a quieter, more serene home. More about this later on in the article.

the neighborhood - intrusive sounds from autos, trains and airplanes

It isn’t only the interiors of the homes that are noisy, but so many houses are located near noisy sources — train tracks, highways, airports. These noises may affect the physical health of children. Cohen, et al. (1980) found higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure among schoolchildren living near the Los Angeles airport. Evans, et al. (1995) in a more recent paper found a relationship between chronic noise exposure and elevated neuroendocrine and cardiovascular measures. Evans and his colCenters also found that children living near the airport reported more “annoyance and a lower quality of life than did children in quiet communities.” To quote from Evans: “These data are sobering when one considers that more than 10 million American schoolchildren are exposed to comparable noise levels.”

With respect to psychological development, Cohen, Glass and Singer (1973) found that children living on the lower-floors of buildings, directly exposed to high levels of expressway noise, demonstrated greater impairment of auditory discrimination and reading achievement than those children living in higher-floor apartments. In attempting to explain their findings, Cohen, et al. referred to Deutsch’s (1964) work in which he had speculated that a child reared in a noisy environment would eventually become inattentive to acoustic cues. The result would be impaired auditory discrimination or the child’s inability, as she tunes out the incoming noises, to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant sounds. This, in turn, might explain why it is difficult for that child to listen in class. Although other studies have supported the Deutsch hypothesis, not all have, and that is why the relationship between noise and auditory discrimination needs further research. For the present time, the results can serve as a warning, cautioning parents to lower the decibel levels surrounding the growing child.

Furthermore, children who live near noisy highways or airports often attend schools near these same noisy sources, compounding the problems. It is often too difficult to examine the impact of aircraft noise on children in their homes, so investigators have looked at the impact of noise on children’s learning and reading scores when their schools lie within the path of noisy overhead planes. Elementary school children attending schools near New York’s two noisy airports (Green, et al, 1992) had lower reading scores than those children attending schools further from the planes, and Cohen, et al. (1980) reported that children attending school near the Los Angeles airport had more difficulty in solving cognitive problems. A critical review of the nonauditory effects of noise on American school children (Evans and Lepore, 1995), including the deficits in learning, reading, and problem-solving, clearly demonstrates that more attention must be given to the effects of noise on cognitive development. Although the government has provided some dollars to protect schools and, in some cases, homes from noisy overhead airplanes, there is no doubt, as a later study will reveal, that much more needs to be done in the area of noise abatement.

In New York City, hundreds of thousands of people live near the elevated train tracks, and thousands of children attend school near these tracks. Hambrick-Dixon (1985) found that pre-schoolers attending day-care centers near New York’s noisy elevated train tracks did poorer on tests on psychomotor skills. Whether noise affected the reading ability of older children was examined in a study by Bronzaft and McCarthy (1975). The examined the reading scores of children attending classes adjacent to the tracks and compared them with the reading scores of the children attending classes on the quiet side of the building. Second, fourth and sixth grade children on the noisy side were reading behind their counterparts on the quiet side, with the children in the sixth grade lagging behind by as much as one year. The Transit Authority was convinced by parents and local public officials to install rubber pads on the tracks to lower the din, and the Board of Education installed acousting ceilings in the noisy rooms. The result was a drop in the decibel level, and in a later study Bronzaft (1981) found that children on both sides of the building were reading at the same level. So, we have another lessons here — namely, that we can do something about noise and when we do, children profit!

Apparently not enough has been done to quiet schools from the overhead jets despite the growing body of literature demonstrating the adverse impact of aircraft noise on learning (Evans & Lepore, 1993). In a soon-to-be published paper, Evans (personal communication) has found that children chronically exposed to aircraft noise have “significant deficits in reading as indexed by a standardized reading test administered under quiet conditions.” Furthermore, Evans provides data to support his contention that chronic noise interferes with reading because of deficits in language acquisition. The experimental elementary school in the Evans study is located near a major New York metropolitan airport, and the control group was located in a quiet neighborhood. All of the children attending the noisy school also lived near the airport and the majority were Black. Green, et al. (1982) published their findings that airport noise lowers reading of ability of school-aged children in New York in 1982, and now Evans reports the same in 1996.

At a time when New York City is concerned about its reading scores, it is especially disturbing that, for the most part, this city’s leaders have not yet addressed the adverse effects of aircraft noise on its youngsters. New York’s public officials boast that three airports serve their city, but are they aware that these airports have exposed more people to the harmful effects of aircraft noise than any other city’s airports (Stenze, 1995)? The city’s airports are denying the rights of many children to a peaceful and quiet environment in which to grow into physiologically and mentally healthy adults.

New York City is not alone in robbing our nation’s children of an environment conducive to proper development because so many other cities are similarly exposing children to all sorts of external noises. Will the Los Angeles school district be able to protect its students from the encroaching expansion of the Santa Monica airport into some very quiet, residential areas? Has Chicago considered the impacts of its airport expansion, or have any of the other cities planning expansions (Stenzel, 1995)?

Children living in noisy communities do find the noise annoying, and when asked to rate their quality of life, children in these areas rated them poorer than did children in quieter communities (Evans, 1995). When speaking with my grandson’s third-grade class about noise, I was amazed to learn how bothered they were by noise and how many sources of noise they identified that interfered with their personal lives. Similarly in the Center for the Hard of Hearing’s Noise Poster Contest in 1996, we saw how cognizant children were about noise sources. There is no question that youngsters do not like these noises in their lives. This doesn’t mean that children don’t enjoy playing and laughing and often doing this loudly, but after all this is playing, not learning, not relaxing. Children need quiet rooms in which to study and quiet areas for reading. Children also need quiet times for relaxing and resting.

As I watch the hectic pace of our society, I begin to become more and more aware of the need to take it easy and to slow our tempo. So many parents often choose the same kind of frenzied pace for their children as they rush them from activity to activity. Children are not being given the time to reflect at their own pace, and to digest the lessons to which they are exposed, and a time to rest. To learn effectively, children need the time to rest between lessons. Give them this time — a time in which to do nothing, a time in which they are not intruded upon by outside stimuli, especially noises.

John Dallas (1995) is so right when he says that: “In an environment where you can’t obtain peace and quiet, it’s close to impossible to find peace within yourself, to find quiet on the inside.” Children need to find that quiet inside themselves as well — a quit that brings them serenity and solace. There is a time to play and frolic and there is a time to slow down and to simply rest. The body needs that time to repair itself and so does the so-called “mind.” There is no doubt that when a child finds the ability to “slow it down,” then his development will be enhanced in every respect.

noise abatement - a parent's obligation, a citizen's responsibility

Being aware of the dangers of noise in our children’s development is the first step toward improving the conditions in their lives. The second step is action-oriented. Parents must make every effort to keep their homes quieter, but they must also attempt to quiet their communities. They must inform their neighbors, their school representatives, and their legislators as to the dangers of noise. All citizens, parents and non-parents alike, must then demand that noise laws, at all levels of government, be enforced and urge the passage of more effective laws where needed. The federal government has a law on the books to provide its citizenry with a less noisy environment, but it hasn’t provide the dollars to ensure the implementation of this law. Isn’t it about time to urge the federal authorities to abide by the intent of its noise law? Let’s join the Center for Hearing and Communication in its efforts to get the government to do so.

When one learns of the technology to abate noise, one learns that the “know-how” is there; what is sadly lacking is the “will.” Make it your business to bring about the willingness to lower the decibel level — our children’s future is very much at stake!


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  • Bronzaft, A.L. (1981). The effect of a noise abatement program on reading ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1, 215-222.

  • Bronzaft, A.L. (1996). Top of the Class. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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  • U.S. National Research Council (1982). Report of working group, 85, Prenatal effects of exposure to high level noise. Washington, DC; National Academy Press.

  • Wachs, T. & Gruen, G. (1982). Early experience and human development. New York, NY Plenum.