From road rage to anxiety – Understanding noise pollution’s impact on health

According to WHO's World Hearing Report, the highest percentage of the globe's 2.5 billion people who will lose hearing by 2050 will be in India.  (Unsplash/ Elyas Pasban)
According to WHO's World Hearing Report, the highest percentage of the globe's 2.5 billion people who will lose hearing by 2050 will be in India. (Unsplash/ Elyas Pasban)


As the third most dangerous form of pollution, noise pollution has a deleterious impact on our physical and psychological health causing cognitive impairment, anxiety and aggression

Raise your hand if you have muted the car stereo when searching for an address while driving. The cacophony of traffic, voices and machinery that permeates the urban soundscape is a constant companion, shaping our daily experiences and sense of place. No wonder, an oft-heard complaint of desis living in or visiting cities abroad with ‘no honking’ driving etiquette and stringent civic rules, is: It’s so silent.

Also read: Inside wellness homes where everything is built for holistic health

Sound, measured in decibels(dB), is 0 dB in a quiet room, and about 60 dB with normal conversation in a room. The average road traffic noise is usually above 53 dB, a firecracker exploding about a metre near you is 140 dB. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic and not linear, the slightest increase in decibels, say by 10 dB, may sound much louder than what it is.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies noise levels above 65 decibels as pollution, with anything surpassing 75 decibels deemed detrimental and potentially agonizing at 120 decibels. Despite these alarming figures, the insidious nature of noise pollution as a ‘silent’ killer often goes unheeded.

A study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2023, titled Occupational and Environmental Noise Exposure and Extra Auditory Effects on Humans: A Systematic Literature Review, sheds light on the far-reaching impacts of chronic exposure to noise pollution. Over time, noisy environments can impair speech comprehension, diminish cognitive function, and induce a range of physical and psychological stressors.

From heightened levels of aggression and mental exhaustion to disruptions in concentration and sleep patterns, the toll of prolonged exposure to high noise levels is undeniable. It is important to note, however, that as personal characteristics and sensitivity to noise differ from person to person, mental effects of noise are not directly related to noise intensity; sometimes, the slightest noise may cause a severe reaction in one person, whereas a loud noise may have no effect on another one.

Neurologist Dr Shobha N, consultant at the Manipal Hospital in Malleswaram, Bengaluru corroborates the study’s findings. According to her, stress responses triggered by noise can lead to systemic inflammation increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, and even certain types of cancer. The psychological repercussions, she says, are equally concerning, with noise pollution linked to anxiety, depression and behavioural issues.

Sumaira Abdulali, convener of Awaz Foundation, Mumbai, cites the first World Report on Hearing published in March 2021 by the WHO. “WHO said that the highest percentage of the globe’s 2.5 billion people who will lose hearing by 2050 will be in the Indian subcontinent," she warns. “Among the most common effect of noise is a disabling hearing loss, and in India, hearing loss from noise exposure is already widespread. Although we discount noise as a mere irritant, we will be a nation of deaf people if we don’t control it," Abdulali says.

Traffic Mayhem

Traffic cops are some of the most affected by noise pollution. A study by the US-based National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Occupational Health Hazards Among Traffic Police in South Asian Countries: Protocol for a Scoping Review, 2023, stated that 79% of traffic police with noise-induced hearing loss complain of tinnitus.

Aggressive behaviour translating to road rage, deafness, irritability and stress on Indian roads have changed who we are. Most drivers and pedestrians have got belligerent and are quick to take offence. In Flexing Muscles, a seminal work he did on the changing pop culture, artist Ravikumar Kashi discussed the emergence of a new imagery of Hanuman – a snarling version of the deity – which adorns countless cars, autorickshaws and other vehicles in Bengaluru, known as the second slowest city in the world. According to the artist, the change in the iconography of the god – from earlier depictions of being in deep meditation to a more aggressive mien – is a commentary on the changing mindset of the people due to external factors including traffic.


Although we discount noise as a mere irritant, we will be a nation of deaf people if we don’t control it. -Sumaira Abdulali

Viresh Raju, 45, has been driving a taxi (its rear wind shield almost covered by the ‘snarling’ Hanuman sticker) in Bengaluru for two decades. Over the years, he has felt stress build up in him, he says. “I visibly tense up when I approach the car. I lose my temper easily and there is a lot of road rage. I have chased traffic offenders, gotten out of my taxi and got into fights; things I would never have done a decade ago." During the pandemic, Raju went to live in his hometown, Nelamangala, along with his family. However, he decided to return to Bengaluru for his kids’ schooling. “Those two years in Nelamangala were peaceful but my children wanted to come back to Bengaluru. I have started driving my taxi again. I meditate in the mornings these days, but I don’t know if it is making a difference," he rues.

The fact that traffic noise has become an ingrained identity of our cities may have resulted in a lax attitude among authorities. Abdulali notes, “The general attitude is ‘Indians love noise; these ideas to control noise are Western ideas,’ even as politicians across party lines and (who) disagree on almost everything else, uniformly resist the implementation of noise rules for political and commercial gain."

Bengaluru-based senior citizen Rajini Raman, 85, has been facing such inaction from the local authorities. “In spite of showing them the decibel levels of the traffic noise from the highway near my apartment, the local authorities have not put up any sound absorbing panels. I am continually stressed and have elevated blood pressure," she says.

Satish K Lohande, Sr Tech Officer at CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) Nagpur, developed a noise tracker app, Noise Tracker Pro, in 2019 to provide a handy tool to the common public, researchers, and students. It is a frequency weighted app that can measure noise levels and frequency of the noise. “Not only metro cities, small towns and villages (in India) too are affected by noise pollution. It is the third most dangerous pollution after air and water pollution and needs to be tackled on a war footing for the betterment of human health," Lokhande stresses.

Be an activist against noise pollution

While the larger issue may seem out of our control, what steps can we individually take to mitigate the effects of noise? Make ‘quieter’ choices suggest experts before listing out suggestions.

  1. Be aware of the adverse effects of noise pollution. Cut down on raucous activities like driving loud motorcycles and other noise offender vehicles, operating machines with over the limit decibels and visiting places with loud music.
  2. Be mindful of the domestic noise you make, from the television or music volume to barking of pet dogs. Within the house, replace constantly droning air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances with better and silent models. Well-insulated doors and windows will ward off outside noise.
  3. Use noise cancellation headsets or ear plugs in a noisy place if that is an option you could take.
  4. Be an activist against noise pollution. Reducing the noise footprint will need some dedicated action from people who are affected.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based writer.

Also read: Workout etiquettes you should follow while exercising in public


Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.