Study: Background Noise Might Be Making You Sick

covering ears

According to a new study, exposure to ultrasound and very high frequency noise (VHF) in highly frequented public places could be making us all sick.

The study — published in Proceedings of the Royal Society — was authored by Southampton University professor Tim Leighton. It reveals that places such as public libraries, swimming pools, and museums expose people to sound frequencies over 20 kilohertz, the limit of most people’s hearing range.

Exposure to such high frequencies can cause symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, stomach pain, fatigue, pressure in the ears and headaches. Sounds awful, but at least the noise isn’t so dissonant that it’s driving old ladies to riot, scream and hit each other with canes, as they did during Igor Stravinsky’s premiere of The Right of Spring in 1913… Right?

Loudspeakers, used as public address systems in sports facilities, movie theaters, workplaces, and public transport are the most common source of high intensity airborne ultrasound. Also contributing to this sonic toxicity are automated door openers, pest repellents, and ultrasonic weapons (like the one used by this cruise ship to ward off pirates).

Seabourn Spirit safety convoy, Gulf of Aden
Getty Image

Leighton’s paper asserts that, “the scientific basis for setting guidelines for exposure to VHF sound and ultrasound in air is not sufficient to cope with the current mass exposure of the public and workers.” He presses that there is inadequate research to assess the safety of VHF sound and ultrasound exposure and current guidelines are based on inadequate data.

Still, other professionals are not so convinced. A Bristol University Professor said “the evidence base surrounding ultrasonic sickness is poor.”

Your options going forward according to the study are to wear ear plugs or even goggles! Seems reasonable. Apparently you can also test for VHF sound and ultrasound with an app on your smartphone. If the app notifies you with pings, we’d officially hit peak modern-living-irony.