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Noxious Noise


I enjoy genealogy, which, by its very nature, is a quiet pursuit. The loudest noise associated with it might be an exclamation of “Got him” when a long-sought ancestor is confirmed.

I also like to paint, to read, to study languages and I write for a living. You’ll notice that all of these are quiet callings.

I’m not sure whether this predilection is genetic, but I do have in my possession a letter my great-great-grandmother wrote to a relative in the post-Civil War South. My gregarious grandmother apologizes for writing twice in a week. “It’s after supper,” she explains, “and you know (my husband) doesn’t like anyone to speak.” My great-great-grandfather, foreman of logging camps in northern Maine, was known for never hiring “a talker.”

Perhaps my aversion to noise is hereditary, maybe not, but my dislike of constant clamor is profound. So, it is with dismay that I see the world around me becoming more and more cacophonous. I went out to dinner last week and literally sat with my fingers in my ears to drown out the noise of a large party at the table next to us. One man at the table spoke with a booming, metallic voice and the rest of the room tried to make itself heard over him resulting in submersion in a bath of sound.

Go to the movies and the opening notes of the score are likely to blast you back in your seat. Try to watch a sporting event—other than golf—and the noise rolls over you. As if the natural sound from thousands of people in close proximity is not enough, large jumbotrons flash the words, “Noise, Noise, Noise,” in ascending sizes, urging the crowd to give full throat to its excitement.

Even the evening news is a trial with the ads blaring obnoxiously no matter how low you turn the volume.

There is no escape. Try to have a conversation on the street and you will suddenly realize how loud the traffic is around you. Relax on your lawn on a summer evening and you won’t hear the chirp of frogs but will instead be serenaded by the neighbor’s lawnmower. In the “quiet” of our homes, any number of household tools and appliances produce harmful sound levels. According to the fact sheet “Noise in the Home,” dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and hair dryers all reach or exceed 90 dB.

Ironically, I try to be quiet about my aversion to noise because it makes me sound crabby. But I am now buoyed by the increasing number of comments I hear from fellow sufferers. I recently heard a woman confess that she goes to concert venues and judges “whether I can stand the noise” before buying tickets. I have heard others report that they will not eat in restaurants were normal conversation is impossible.

Is there a growing resistance among the decibel-ly challenged? It would be good for the world if there were. Science is already nibbling at a growing mound of evidence that excessive noise is bad for us.

Normal conversation is measured at about 60 dB, a lawn mower at about 90 dB and a loud rock concert at about 120 dB. In general, sounds above 85 are harmful depending on the length and frequency of exposure.

Beyond the obvious effect of damaging hearing and causing tinnitus—in 1999 the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that worldwide 120 million people had disabling work-related hearing difficulties—noise is known to exacerbate hypertension, anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation, to decrease cognitive abilities and even inhibit speech development in children. According to the WHO’s Guidelines for Community Noise, “these health effects, in turn, can lead to social handicap, reduced productivity, decreased performance in learning, absenteeism in the workplace and school, increased drug use, and accidents.”

Some people happily subject their own bodies to excessive noise. Popular “boom cars,” equipped with powerful stereo systems usually played with the volume and bass turned up and the car windows rolled down, can hit 140–150 dB. Listening to music at that level is the equivalent of standing next to a Boeing 747 airplane with its engines at full throttle according to Noise Free America, an anti-noise advocacy group.

No wonder audiologists are fitting increasing numbers of teenagers with hearing aids. In the July 2001 issue of Pediatrics, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, based on audiometric testing of 5,249 children, an estimated 12.5 percent of American children have noise-induced hearing threshold shifts—or dulled hearing—in one or both ears.

Even the unborn are not immune. The Committee on Environmental Health of the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that excessive noise exposure in utero may result in high-frequency hearing loss in newborns.

And those of us long on this earth are not invulnerable. We are subjected to the slip stream of this chaos. Sit next to one of those boom cars and you will feel vibrations in your own body, even through the walls of two cars.

Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, an anti-noise advocacy group based in Montpelier VT, likens noise to smoking. “Like secondhand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over,” he says.

As they have done with renewable energy, Europe and Asia have embraced noise reduction. In the European Union, countries with cities of at least 250,000 people have created noise maps to help leaders determine noise pollution policies. The data is fed into computer models that help test the sound impact of street designs or new buildings before construction begins.

But, the United States has not joined the fray. The Noise Control Act of 1972, which let the EPA set noise limits to protect public health, was gutted in 1982 when the Reagan administration defunded the Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

America, which has prided itself on its entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy, can surely join the rest of the world in containing this growing problem. I fear that if we do not, we will become like rats in a maze, driven mad by our own frenzied society. A little peace and quiet is well overdue.