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A barbarous noise

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In the seventeenth century John Milton could write “ . . .a barbarous noise environs me, of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs”. Three hundred and thirty years later nearly half of Europe is exposed to an ambient noise level which is in excess of World Health Organisation recommendations for residential areas, schools, and hospitals, and there is concern about the effects on children's hearing, learning, and mental health. Two recent papers have reported studies of noise and school performance around Heathrow Airport, London (

) and noise and children's mental health in an Austrian valley (

).

The London study included 11 000 children in school-year 6 (around 11 years of age) attending 123 primary schools in three boroughs (Hillingdon, Hounslow, and Windsor and Maidenhead). Noise exposure was assessed from 1994 Civil Aviation Authority aircraft noise contour maps and school performance from the results of 1996 and 1997 national curriculum assessments (National Standardised Scores (SATs)) in English (reading, writing, spelling, and handwriting), mathematics, and science taken in year 6. The level of chronic exposure to aircraft noise was inversely related to performance in reading and mathematics. After adjustment for socioeconomic status (proportion of pupils in the school eligible for free school meals), however, the associations between aircraft noise and school performance were no longer significant.

The Austrian study was in the mainly rural, lower Inn Valley of Tyrol with lower levels of ambient noise exposure and included 1400 children aged 8–11 years. Noise exposure at each child's home was estimated from modelling of road and rail traffic noise and from 31 noise measuring points. The children's mental health was assessed by self-report of symptoms of anxiety or depression and by teacher rating of classroom adjustment using standard scales for each. Increasing noise exposure was found to have an adverse effect on the teacher rating. Using the self-report scale mental health was adversely affected by noise only in children with “early biological risk” (low birthweight or preterm birth).

Increasing environmental noise exposure may have an adverse effect on children's school performance (reading and mathematics) and mental health. There is a link between noise exposure and socioeconomic factors. Surprisingly, neither of these reports mentions hearing.

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