Ciudad de Guatemala. Foto Flickr UN Women

Noise Pollution: A Public Health Problem in Guatemala

For: Carol Ixtabalán and Diana Pastor

When we breathe we make a sound. When we walk we make a sound. Eating, watching TV, listening to music…everything we do emits some type of sound, often unpleasant noise: an unarticulated sound lacking rhythm and harmony, or a mix of sounds which are generally undesired.

Exposure to noise affects our health, depending on its intensity and frequency. According to the WHO (World Health Organization) noise levels louder than 55 dB (decibels: a unit of sound intensity) can be harmful to the human ear. Long and frequent exposure to noises louder than 65 dB can lead to gradual hearing loss, and sounds like gunshots or explosions at a close distance can lead to faster hearing loss or tinnitus, a sense of ringing in the ears. The upper limit of the human ear’s tolerance to constant noises is between 65 and 80 dB, and up to a maximum of 85 dB during a maximum of 8 hours.

The following examples serve as a reference to noise tolerance: The noise of quiet breathing is between 0 and 10 dB, and conversation in a library is around 30dB. As such, these are considered normal noise levels. The noise in a club can be between 110 and 150 dB, and as such exceed the threshold of painful noise, which is between 120 and 140 dB. In animals, the threshold is even lower, and as such, in cities noise can affect zoo animals. Noise in rural areas can affect wild animals. The noise generated by human activity can also affect domesticated animals found in our houses.

Lourdes Aguilar, an environmental engineer in Quetzaltenango, studied noise contamination around Quetzaltenango’s zoo in 2016. She concluded that on a normal day, the noise level was at an average of 59 dB within the park, and outside the park reached up to 70 dB. Bearing in mind that the zoo is home to birds with a noise tolerance of 10 dB, the noise inside the zoo, and of course outside of the zoo, had an enormous effect on these animals.

Noise Pollution in Guatemala

Fireworks. Photo: FB Guatemalan Rocket Brands

There is always some level of noise in the most populated areas of Guatemala, where the sounds of car horns and even celebratory fireworks are common. According to an article in Prensa Libre, in Guatemalan cities, the population is frequently exposed to noises above 100 dB, more than what is recommendable for the human ear. Noise levels reaching up to 120 dB have even been found on a normal day. A study from MARN established that in the capital, noises of up to 150 dB—more than twice as loud as normal noise levels—can be recorded in zonas 1, 8, 9, 10, and 11.

It is not just fireworks and automobiles that contribute to noise pollution. Motorcycles, airplane engines, advertisements over loudspeakers, churches, private parties, and clubs with loud music also add to the problem. Despite all of this, there is no national law in Guatemala to regulate this problem. However, there are anti-noise agreements in some municipalities. Countless complaints have been lodged, but due to the lack of regulation these have not been acted on.

Noise in the World

Guatemala City is the noisiest municipality in the country, followed by Quetzaltenango. The noisiest cities in the world are found in China, India, Egypt, Turkey, and Spain; and in Latin America, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Mexico City have the highest levels of noise pollution. Noise is directly related to stress: louder noise correlates with a higher release of hormones, increasing blood pressure, affecting our mood, and in the long run, our behavior. Even when we don’t notice this noise, it affects us just the same. This happens when we sleep in a noisy environment, which can affect our sleep patterns.


Changes in our sleep patterns can cause other problems, as this interrupts our metabolism and affects our appetite, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Other effects of constant noise exposure can include vertigo, loss of balance, and issues in our circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and endocrine systems, as well as psychopathological issues such as insomnia, memory loss, depression, and anxiety, among others.

It is not just environmental noise that can affect our bodies. Excessive use of electronic devices can cause hearing loss. In the United states, this is the third most common chronic condition, which is alarming. This country to the north has total access to technology, and as such unfettered access to devices such as headphones and speakers producing sound at high volumes is common. This can cause hearing problems that develop in the long term to severe hearing loss in extreme cases.

Hearing Loss in Guatemala

Hair cells in the cochlea play an important role in “processing sound.”
When permanently exposed to loud noises, they can be damaged for life, because
unlike animals, they do not regenerate in humans. It’s like walking through the grass
over and over without rest; After a while, it will be permanently crushed.

In Guatemala there is little detailed information about the deaf population. Ana Beatriz Suárez, a sign language interpreter, published the following information in a blog on the Gibson Research Consultancy’s website: (La comunidad sorda y el acceso a la salud en Guatemala — GRC-Salud)

The Second National Survey of Disability in Guatemala (ENDIS 2016) was conducted in 2016 and presented more specific information on the matter. The report indicates that the general prevalence of disability in participants was 10.2%, and that 31% of households in Guatemala included at least one person with a disability. This report also indicates that the estimated combined prevalence of people with deficient hearing was 4.0% in adults above 18 years of age and 0.6% in children between the ages of 2 and 17. Another takeaway from the data was that the clinical prevalence of hearing deficiency was 2.4%. 38% of those individuals had moderate hearing loss, 35% had severe hearing loss, and 27% experienced profound deafness.

International Noise Awareness Day

As hearing problems have increased over time, April 12 is celebrated as International Noise Awareness Day. This tradition was established in 1996 by the Center for Hearing and Communication, whose goal is to raise global awareness of the risks and health problems related with noise pollution. The hope of International Noise Awareness Day is to motivate people to have better habits in their daily activities, as hearing loss is irreversible. Here at EntreMundos, we hope that with time, more people will be conscious of and ready to reduce this invisible public health problem.

Some of the most dangerous noises (approximate values)

Party and church music: 80 to 100 dB

Trucks: 115 to 130 dB

Clubs: 110 dB or more

Fireworks (at close distances): 120 dB or more

Airplane engines: 120 dB or more