25 September 2016
Silence is golden
Toward lower volumes of noise pollution
If there’s a business that’s destined to make itself heard in the future, it’s the silence business. More and more of the world’s population is living in cities, and that’s playing havoc with our ears and our health: too much noise all at once, and much too loud. It’s a risk, but it’s also an opportunity for everybody working in noise mitigation.
Turn down the volume, please! The request is from the World Health Organization, which says that, in Europe alone, 125 million people absorb 55 decibels of unwelcome noise, while 37 million of the continent’s citizens are exposed to levels well above the risk threshold: over 65 decibels. And unfortunately for our ears, we’re not talking about particularly loud symphonies, but a chaotic cacophony that explodes around us as cars and trucks roar by, planes take off and land, their engines screaming, builders pound on nails next door, shouting revelers crowd the streets on Saturday night. It’s more than just an irritation, because in the long run there’s a good chance it can make us ill. Every year, according to European Environmental Agency estimates, exposure to excessive noise causes sleep disturbances for 8 million people, around 900 thousand cases of high blood pressure, and even leads to 10 thousand deaths. Noise pollution could be as big a threat as air pollution, and maybe even bigger. The Worldwatch Institute reminds us of the reason: today, 3.5 billion people live in cities, fully half of the world population. By 2050, city dwellers will account for 70% of the planet’s inhabitants. And it’s going to be a pretty clamorous planet if we don’t do something about it.
In the last century, sound engineers had only one tune to play: making things heard and making them louder. That meant everything from on-stage mics to the stereo speakers in concert halls and homes, and even the sirens on police cars and ambulances. Some people just had to shout to be noticed. Now, the tune has changed, and the trend has turned. According to the Dutch research group TNO, using sound absorbing materials in our houses and streets could reduce sound impact by 39% and save 326 million euros in healthcare costs. And that’s not all. Here, less really is more: more added value. Take, for instance, noise canceling headphones. When they first came on the market, they were meant for professionals whose jobs forced them to live with noise, in airports, factories and construction sites. Today, the active noise control units offered by the major audio system maker are used for listening to music, but also to be more comfortable in planes and trains, hitting the mute button on the raucous world around us. There are also opportunities in sound absorbing materials for houses, infrastructures and, above all, cars. Here, however, the problem is the opposite. If electric cars go mainstream, their motors will have to be louder so that pedestrians can hear them. Driverless cars, on the other hand, could make horns and sirens obsolete thanks to digital driving sensors. Lastly, we have the HVAC industry, a market that Freedonia’s analysts say will be worth 120 billion dollars and will be driven by energy savings and new silent motors.