The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authored a pamphlet in 1978 that suggested a correlation between low-birthweight (using the World Health Organization definition of less than 2,500 g (~5.5 lb) and high sound levels, and also high rates of birth defects in places where expectant mothers are exposed to elevated sound levels, such as typical airport environs. Specific birth abnormalities included harelip, cleft palate, and defects in the spine.
According to Lester W. Sontag of The Fels Research Institute (as presented in the same EPA study): “There is ample evidence that environment has a role in shaping the physique, behavior, and function of animals, including man, from conception and not merely from birth. The fetus is capable of perceiving sounds and responding to them by motor activity and cardiac rate change.” The effects of noise exposure are highest when it occurs between 15 and 60 days after conception, a period in which major internal organs and the central nervous system are formed.
Later developmental effects occur as vasoconstriction in the mother reduces blood flow and therefore oxygen and nutrition to the fetus. Low birth weights and noise were also associated with lower levels of certain hormones in the mother. These hormones are thought to affect fetal growth and to be good indicators of protein production. The difference between the hormone levels of pregnant mothers in noisy versus quiet areas increased as birth approached.
In a 2000 publication, a review of studies on birthweight and noise exposure note that while some older studies suggest that when women are exposed to >65 dB aircraft noise a small decrease in birthweight occurs, in a more recent study of 200 Taiwanese women including noise dosimetry measurements of individual noise exposure, the authors found no significant association between noise exposure and birth weight after adjusting for relevant confounders, e.g. social class, maternal weight gain during pregnancy, etc.
When young children are regularly exposed to levels of noise that interfere with speech, they may develop speech or reading difficulties, because auditory processing functions are compromised. Children continue to develop their speech perception abilities until they reach their teens. Evidence has shown that when children learn in noisier classrooms, they have a more difficult time understanding speech than those who learn in quieter settings.
In a study conducted by Cornell University in 1993, children exposed to noise in learning environments experienced trouble with word discrimination, as well as various cognitive developmental delays. In particular, the writing learning impairment known as dysgraphia is commonly associated with environmental stressors in the classroom.
The effect of high noise levels on small children has been known to cause physical health damages as well. Children from noisy residences often possess a heart rate that is significantly higher (by 2 beats/min on average) than those of children from quieter homes.
Main article: Noise regulation
Environmental noise regulations usually specify a maximum outdoor noise level of 60 to 65 dB(A), while occupational safety organizations recommend that the maximum exposure to noise is 40 hours per week at 85 to 90 dB(A). For every additional 3 dB(A), the maximum exposure time is reduced by a factor 2, e.g. 20 hours per week at 88 dB(A). Sometimes, a factor of two per additional 5 dB(A) is used, however, these occupational regulations are acknowledged by the health literature as inadequate to protect against hearing loss and other health effects.
With regard to indoor noise pollution in residences, the U.S. EPA has not set any restrictions on limits to the level of noise. Rather, it has provided a list of recommended levels in its Model Community Noise Control Ordinance, which was published in 1975. For instance, the recommended noise level for indoor residences is less than or equal to 45 dB.
Noise pollution control in residences is not funded by the federal government in part because of the disagreements in establishing causal links between sounds and health risks, since the effect of noise is often psychological and also, because it leaves no singular tangible trace of damage on the human body. For instance, hearing loss could be attributed to a variety of factors including age, rather than solely due to excessive exposure to noise. A state or local government is able to regulate indoor residential noise, however, such as when excessive noise from within a home causes disturbances to nearby residences.