Noise Pollution Could Be Setting Students of Color Up to Fail

Photo: AP

When kids are in school, they need a fair amount of peace and quiet to succeed. Literally. Noise is a health hazard, according to the World Health Organization. And a recent study shows how students of color are more likely to face high exposure to road or aviation noise while in school.

Published in the journal Environmental Research last month, the study looked at data that included nearly 50 million students throughout some 94,000 public schools in 2014. The authors from the University of Utah found that race was a major indicator of exposure to noise pollution.

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A higher percentage of students of color population was associated with an increased chance of a school experiencing aviation noise. And more than half of the children in the schools most exposed to road and aviation noise were eligible for free or reduced lunch at school, an indicator of their lower socioeconomic status. The worst finding? The youngest children—I’m talking elementary school—are more likely to be exposed to this noise than their older peers.

Silence is a rare commodity these days, one with high value. None of us can escape noise; the farthest any of us in the Lower 48 can get from a road (aka the roaring of a car’s engine) is 19 miles. In Europe, at least, environmental noise pollution has resulted in nearly 1.7 million years of life lost a year, according to a 2011 WHO report. That’s from sleep disturbance, heart disease, and even annoyance—all health impacts that result from the pollution. The impact of noise on learning abilities hasn’t been heavily investigated in the U.S., but some examinations in other countries have found children have trouble concentrating and exhibit lower performance, especially when learning to read.

The authors of the new study drew on a number of data points, including noise exposure data from the Department of Transportation and public school data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The researchers used mapping technologies to analyze exposure to noise pollution, which included that from motor vehicles on roads and from aircraft. However, the team did look at 24-hour noise data, and students are in school only during the day.

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That presents a limitation to their investigation. The data also doesn’t include any exposure outside of school and focuses on a single year. The authors note in the paper this is “due to availability of noise estimates.”

Regardless, the findings make some sense. After all, the researchers note that “racially discriminatory locational decisions,” as put in the study, have resulted in highways and airport flight paths disproportionately impacting communities of color. And the findings are in line with other forms of pollution. A study last year showed that students of color are also are at high risk for air pollution, too. There’s a growing body of research showing how people of color, in general, face disproportionate pollution—whether it’s in the noise or the air, neither is any good for health.

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The accumulation of all these impacts sets up students of color and low-income families for failure. They deserve better—and, at the very least, a little peace and quiet.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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