The Effects of Traffic Noise on a Child’s Cognitive Development

Noise pollution comes in different forms, but one major contributor is daily traffic. When you grow up in a city, traffic becomes part of your daily life. You’ll get accustomed to the noise, but many people aren’t aware that too much traffic noise harms one’s health. Exposure to noise pollution almost daily can affect a child’s cognitive development. Most significantly, when kids go to school — traffic is a common experience for children worldwide. Traffic is a global problem — not just because it badly alters daily schedules but for someone’s health.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tokota

Due to this ongoing problem, a study was conducted to prove traffic noise’s impact on child cognitive development. The research was a part of the BREATHE project led by scientists Maria Foraster and Jordi Sunyer. The BREATHE project was established to further study air quality and encourage people to support their advocacy. 2,680 children between the ages of 7 and 10 years old participated in the study. Their experiment focuses on the two abilities that enhance promptly during the preadolescence stage, and those two were attention and working memory. The research occurred between 2012 and 2013 with the participation of 38 schools from Barcelona.

“Our study supports the hypothesis that childhood is a vulnerable period during which external stimuli such as noise can affect the rapid process of cognitive development that takes place before adolescence,” said Jordi Sunyer. The participants took a cognitive exam four times within twelve months and gathered noise measurements from school playgrounds and classrooms in that same period. After assessing the collected data, it was discovered that working memory and attention development was stagnant in children exposed to harsh traffic noise.

Photo: PxHere/Q000024

According to the results, a 5-decibel increase in outdoor noise level led to working memory progress of 11.4%, which was slower than average. The complex working memory development was 23.5% slower than the standard rate. The recorded result for attention progress rate was 4.8% slower than average. As for the indoor noise level observation, children exposed to noisy playgrounds have low school exam results. Noisy classrooms also severely affect the child’s attention and their working memory.

“This finding suggests that noise peaks inside the classroom may be more disruptive to neurodevelopment than average decibel level,” said Dr. Maria Foraster. “This is important because it supports the hypothesis that noise characteristics may be more influential than average noise levels, despite the fact that current policies are based solely on average decibels,” she added.

Photo: Pixnio/Amanda Mills, USCDCP

Furthermore, the research was extended to noise levels at home based on Barcelona’s 2012 road traffic noise map. The team found out that there was no relation between residential noise and cognitive development. “This could be because noise exposure at school is more detrimental as it affects vulnerable windows of concentration and learning processes,” Dr. Forester said. “On the other hand, although noise measurements were taken at the schools, noise levels at the children’s homes were estimated using a noise map that may be less accurate and, in any case, only reflected outdoor noise. This, too, may have influenced the results.”

Due to the results, the research team will further conduct studies that will strengthen their hypothesis. They will gather more information from testing the experiment in different settings and locations. The data collected in the research will be included in a separate study about the exposure of children at schools to aircraft noise and air pollution from traffic.

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