You’ve heard the warnings many times before, and you’re even beginning to become aware of it in your own environment. Noise pollution is taking a toll on our health according to medical researchers around the globe. We all need to step up to the plate and make an effort to quiet our environments before the noise makes us ill, or worse.
Worse? Yes. Noise can kill us. It can also drive us to do crazy things.
I have written plenty of articles about the health effects of noise on humans, animals, and plant life. I have covered new findings relating traffic noise to increased incidents of heart attack, and ambient environmental noise to a host of disorders from sleeplessness to depression, increased blood pressure, delayed recovery from major illnesses and even surgery. Noise can be toxic, but if we all become at least somewhat mindful of the health risks of noise, we can take steps toward making our environments quieter, healthier places.
Once we do that, we can sit back and enjoy our improved quality of life, and watch it work its magic on our friends and families, right? Think about it, if we suddenly all became hypervigilant about our own noise emissions and eradicated 90 percent of environmental noise overnight, the serenity might be overwhelming. Would we know what to do with it, or what it would sound like?
In addition to the toll environmental noise pollution takes on our bodies, there is another way noise can lead to death - murder. Seriously, folks are murdering each other over loud stereos and high volume parties in rising numbers, and this is a whole new side effect of noise that I think we’d better start paying closer attention to. People are killing each other over noise, and the problem seems to be worsening.
OK, we know theoretically that neighbors have had deadly disputes since the Hatfields and McCoys began murdering each other back in 1863 and didn’t stop until 1891. Of course, their ongong feud wasn’t started because of noise, but it created a whole lot of noise for both families and their neighbors on the West Virginia–Kentucky border. Noise can be scary and intimidating, it can be used as a weapon. The Hatfield/McCoy noise occured in the days before restraining orders and costly noise citations were issued to prevent crimes between neighbors, so it probably got pretty loud over there on the Kentucky/West Virginia border.
Fast Forward to Brentwood California, 2004. I once watched a television news report about Actress Julie Newmar, whose Brentwood home is next door to the home of Actor James Belushi. For years these two have been making each other’s lives miserable, a feud triggered when the aging Catwoman first complained about Belushi’s loud music invading her serene home environment.
Now, neighborly spats over noise, and one neighbor’s refusal to turn down the volume causing the offended neighbor to set off on a “campaign of harassment” (so said Belushi’s $4 million lawsuit against Newman when the back and forth became unbearable) is nothing new, and neither of them killed each other (although both alluded to fantasizing about it). But they each had blood pressure spiking for years, trouble sleeping, and heightened states of stress. But, other than the fact that this was Catwoman and the younger brother of the late, great Bluto, they could easily be any two American neighbors being driven crazy over one man’s music being another man’s inability to cope.
It’s never healthy when neighbors begin behaving like bullies, but what’s worse is when one neighbor loses site of reality and takes their rage to the next level. Some people are truly hypersensitive to noise, and it can become pathological. Ligyrophobia is literally a fear of noise, and although not every guy who goes off on a tirade over the neighbor’s barking dog or noise coming from a party is ligyrophobic, you don’t want to be blasting AC/DC in your garage if your neighbor happens to suffer from the condition. Let’s face it, we really do need to become more considerate, we never know when our neighbor might have a legitimate sensitivity to noise. Ligyrophic or not, he or she may have suffered from a traumatic event in their lives, or even an illness that left them with a low tolerance for noise.
Or, they could be doing a schedule II drug like methamphetamine, which can make a person overreact to even the slightest stimuli, in which case it’s just not safe to egg them on.
Such was the case last month in Woodlawn, California when police were called to a home on a noise complaint. When they arrived on the scene, a man who wasn’t happy about noise coming from his neighbor’s house had worked himself up into quite a frenzy, flashing a toy gun he held under a towel at police – the same toy gun he had waved at his noisy neighbors just minutes earlier in an encouraging gesture to get them to turn down their stereo. Of course, brandishing even a toy gun is highly illegal, especially when you do it with methamphetamine in your bloodstream and in a little bag hidden in your sock for later. Had the toy gun been real, the noisy neighbors may never have learned how close to a psychotic episode their noise-sensitive by means of meth neighbor had come, and how seriously agitated he was over their loud music.
Methamphetamine ingestion can cause a person do rash things he or she might never do ordinarily, like shoot their noisy neighbors who refuse a request to pipe down.
And for more than a year we’ve been glued to the trial of a 46-year-old retired firefighter from Houston who shot his unarmed neighbor, a 36-year-old school teacher, over noise coming from a birthday party being hosted in the school teacher’s home next door. The shooter, Raul Rodriguez, insisted he had the right to “stand his ground” at the base of the noisy neghbor's driveway and shoot the neighbor along with two other victims. Rodriguez had a reputation for being a hothead and a bully, and he seriously believed he could use deadly force against a neighbor because the birthday party noise was agitating him. He’ll spend 40 years in prison, having been convicted of murdering his neighbor over noise.
Weren't most of us at one time that smart aleck who thought it was funny to crank the stereo louder when a neighbor complained? It really wasn't a thoughtful gesture, and had I known then what I know now, I would not have participated in those antics. Noise is perceived differently by everyone, and even the most level headed among us, when subjected to noise that is invasive and inescapable for an extended period of time can be driven nuts. Our bodies aren’t designed for long stretches of high decibels. Some of us are more sensitive to noise than others. Of course, we expect our neighbors not to turn into murderous lunatics over sounds that we enjoy and relate to good times, but if they’ve knocked on your door, called you on your phone, or contacted the police because the noise is bothering them, they’re telling you the noise is too loud.
Turn it down. Buy some headphones. Install soundproofing material in your garage or home media room to block and absorb noise so you can crank your stereo without invading your neighbor's privacy.
Everyone will live longer.
Photo: Tim Robbins in "Noise" courtesy of Seven Arts Pictures
Noise pollution is making us sick, nervous, distracted, unproductive, and sleep deprived. It’s even killing us. Do we pull a Henry Bean to make it stop?
If you saw the movie “Noise” you may know that Henry Bean is the real life batterer of car alarms on whose life the movie, starring Tim Robbins, was based. Bean could not stand the sound of car alarms blaring for up to four hours in his Manhattan neighborhood, and when car owners didn’t address their blaring alarms soon enough, Bean did.
“It bothers me that their cars can shout in my ear, not stop shouting, and I can’t do anything about it,” Bean said in a 2008 interview. “My pride can’t handle it. I can’t exist if I don’t fight back in some way, however pathetically or ineffectually.”
Bean spent years breaking into those cars with blaring, unattended alarms. It was during a particularly sleep-deprived night that he broke into a car whose alarm had been blaring for more than four hours outside of his apartment. By the time Bean broke the car’s window, popped the hood and disconnected the battery cable, the car had already been pummelled with eggs, beer and tomatoes.
“People inflicted their fury, but nobody did what I did,” he said.
Oh, and the car's owner called the police. Bean spent a night in jail, and thousands on his legal defense. When all was said and done, he was admonished but hardly reformed. He has admitted to taking more blaring car alarms out since his arrest, but he skims the details.
The character based on Bean in the movie “Noise” sacrificed his marriage and his Manhattan apartment in his uncontrollable need to shut down car alarms, waging a one-man war on the urban noise pollution in what began as an attempt to get some peace and quiet.
The film received good reviews, but the general public wasn’t interested. Apparently noise isn’t a big box office attraction, but the film itself did a good job of defining a pervasive form of pollution that, although it is harming us, gets little attention from most people. Studies have revealed time and again that noise can be harmful to human health, just like air and water pollution. Noise damages our hearing, interrupts our sleep, and raises our blood pressure to dangerous levels. According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year.
In New York City, noise is the number one quality-of-life complaint. Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist who studies noise, is a member of New York’s Council on the Environment, and helped rewrite the city’s noise code in recent years. It was Bronzaft’s landmark 1970s research that brought attention to the noise of elevated train tracks, which hampered the academic performance of children in nearby schools. In July 2007, the first new noise codes in New York in more than 30 years went into effect, regulating construction noise, air-conditioner noise, garbage truck grinding and even music from bars and restaurants. That’s right, taxi drivers are no longer permitted to lean on their horns except in situations of “imminent danger.”
Today, urban landscapes can be so noisy that ornithologists have discovered birds warbling at the top of their lungs to be heard. Nightingales in Berlin have been documented singing up to 14 decibels louder than their relatives in quieter surroundings, in an attempt to be heard above all the city noise Yet the cacophony of modern life is hardly confined to metropolises like New York or Cairo, Egypt, where you literally have to shout on the street to make yourself heard.
In “Noise,” the Bean character and his family head to the country for a weekend to escape the city’s noise, only to be besieged by a neighbor’s noisy leaf blower. Escaping noise is not an easy task.
Even scarier is the fact that noise affects your health, even when you sleep through it.
Scientists at Imperial College London monitored the blood pressure of 140 sleeping volunteers who lived near London’s Heathrow airport. Their research discovered that the volunteers’ blood pressure rose when a plane few overhead, even while the volunteer slept. Another study of 5,000, 45-to-70-year-olds living near airports for five years or longer found that they were at greater risk of suffering from hypertension / high blood pressure than their peers in quieter communities. In 2007, the World Health Organization estimated that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for three percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease among Europeans.
Meanwhile, the world continues to get louder. The 20th century was the loudest in the history of the world, and the past decade was the loudest decade in the history of the world, according to researchers. The question is, when – if ever – will it get quieter?