Is urban pollution corroding our mental wellbeing by depriving us of sleep?
Words by JOSEPH HOWARD
With the world’s population expected to “increase by an estimated 33% before 2050, and with nearly 70% of those people living in urban environments” (Iqbal, 2018), the effects of urban life on our minds will only intensify over the coming years. Taking in the unnatural sights and sounds of our busy streets can be mentally exhausting, and evidence suggests that sleep deprivation will be one of the most challenging effects of urban life on our mental well-being.
Sleep deprivation is when someone doesn’t get enough sleep to feel awake and alert (Davis, 2018) and “one in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep” (NHS, 2018). This investigation surveyed 100 participants for the causes and effects of their sleep quality (see Appendix A for results), which indicated that 37% of participants ‘sometimes’, ‘usually’, or ‘almost always’ experienced poor sleep. Plus, 90% said their sleep quality had an impact on their mood. 4 participants who ‘almost always’ slept poorly expanded on what factors affected them the most (see Appendix B for results). A professional researcher on ‘the consequence of sleep loss’ was also consulted, to provide a clearer insight into the issue (see Appendix C for transcript).
There are several pollutants that cause sleep deprivation. “Noise pollution, unwanted or excessive sound that can have deleterious effects on human health” (Berg and Nathanson, 2018), is a particular danger. The maximum threshold for safe sound levels is estimated between 55dB and 80dB (Gourévitch et al., 2014, p. 483–84), yet in London, “over 1.6 million people are exposed to daytime road traffic noise levels >55 dB” (Halonen et al., 2015, p. 2653); Tube trains can produce over 105dB (Keegan, 2018), and construction machines usually produce 55–75dB (Lee, Hong and Jeon, 2015, p. 657-667).
This danger is illustrated by studies which show that “objective sleep quality is impaired by road traffic noise exposure” (Frei, Mohler and Röösli, 2014, p. 194) and that “hearing impairment among workers occupationally exposed to harmful noise, independently contributed to sleep impairment, especially to insomnia” (Test et al., 2011, p. 25).
Light pollution also has a significant impact. 3 of the sleep-deprived participants revealed that outside or inside lights were causes of their sleep loss. According to the ‘consulted researcher’, “Sleep can be disrupted or delayed if there is too much going on right before bed and too much light (like from a TV or computer screen)”. This is likely due to the abundance of blue-light in most LED screens, which “suppresses melatonin, making it hard for people to fall asleep” (Ferro, 2017), especially when looking at screens straight before sleeping.
42% of survey participants also indicated heat as a prevalent cause of sleep disturbance. This may be because “urban building materials, such as concrete and asphalt, can absorb heat during the day and radiate it back at night, much more than areas covered with vegetation do” (Chandler, 2018).
Although 90% of the participants agreed that their sleep quality affects their mood, the effects of sleep deprivation stretch far beyond mood alone. Of the sleep-deprived participants, all 4 said they experienced stress, anxiety, or depression, as a result of poor sleep.
According to one sleep disruption study, just some of the effects include “emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits” (Medic, Wille and Hemels, 2017, p. 151). The ‘consulted researcher’ added, “even one night of sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to some of the behavioural symptoms observed in schizophrenia such as distorted views of reality, disorganized thoughts, and a lack of pleasure in things that would normally bring joy”, which has very serious implications. All of the sleep-deprived participants said that ‘responsiveness’, ‘productivity’, ‘attention span’, and ‘irritability’ were impeded after poor sleep, suggesting these could be the most impactful effects.
Considering these effects on mental well-being, sleep deprivation represents a huge challenge for designers, as morality should be at the centre of the design process. When considering the aforementioned polluting effects of our products and environments on sleep, the need for a much more responsible approach is self-evident. The fragility of peoples’ mental well-being means we cannot afford to design our busy urban environments with little or no regard for our sleep. As the ‘consulted researcher’ said, “we really need sleep to function well”.
With “the sleep aids market (just a portion of sleep health) estimated to be worth around $49.5 million in 2016 and expected to grow to $79.8 million by 2022” (Brooker, 2018), this issue isn’t particularly new to the design world. However, evidence suggests these current products have had relatively little impact. For example, blue-light-blocking glasses could help sleep quality (Kimberly and James R., 2009, p. 1602), but they are “clunky and awkward” (Bellefonds, 2018), and “putting those glasses on at night might strain your eyes in other ways not yet understood” (Khurana in Bellefonds, 2018). In similar fashion, noise cancelling earplugs and headbands have had some recent success but are very expensive and “can’t completely block out the sound of sirens and snoring, for example” (Strick, 2018). Clearly then, a well-reasoned design approach is needed to improve our efficiency in combating this pollution. We need to change peoples’ attitudes to the unnatural light, heat, and noise they expose themselves to, in the busy urban environments they live in. But we also need to design more effective and unobtrusive products to protect ourselves against prolonged exposure to these pollutants. Designers must make this difficult task a high priority for the future if we are to protect the sleep and mental well-being of that 70% of the world living in urban environments (Iqbal, 2018).
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