Paul Henry and his wife Jeanette tore their house apart trying to locate a bothersome noise.
One morning about a month ago, I woke up with a throbbing headache – it was throbbing in a rhythmic way, to the beat of some sound; it took me a minute to wake up enough to figure it out. It was throbbing to the beat of a relentless “beep…beep…beep-ing” noise, and I realized pretty quickly it had to be a dying battery in my smoke alarm, way up there on the ceiling. I knew this because it happened once in my last house which had 17 foot ceilings, and I had to wait hours for a handyman with a huge ladder to come and fix it. It was awful.
So that morning last month I took two aspirin and waited for some pain relief, which came, but the beeping noise was agitating. I have no ladder – I need to get a ladder – just a step stool, and I could just barely reach the thing. By now the noise had really gotten to me, so I just tore the unit out of the ceiling and ripped the failing battery out of it. It hung there like the carcass of a battered piñata.
You know what? It kept beeping.
I could not find another battery anywhere in the house, and I am a battery hoarder. I need to have a battery available to me at any hour of the day or night; you know how it is, when you need a battery. So I always make sure I have a stockpile. But I moved a few months ago, and there are still some boxes…anyway, I tore the house apart and could not find my battery stash.
About an hour had passed since I woke up with my head dancing to the beep beat. My noise-induced high blood pressure by now was through the roof. I had already grown to hate the beep. I despised it, I wanted it dead. I was having crazy person thoughts over this beep after just an hour of its relentless taunting. I threw on jeans and a t-shirt and got out of there. I had to get away from it. I went to Walgreens and bought a new battery, and then I slummed around town for a few hours. I needed to get home, I had a ton of work to do, but I just couldn’t go back there. Not yet. I was chastising myself for not knowing where my battery stash was, and in fact I would unpack those last 10 boxes that night. I swore to myself, never again.
Noise can make you nutty. It can make you tear your house apart looking for batteries.
OK, I’m going somewhere with this. Bear with me.
How many of us have, at least once in our lives, told someone we “tore the house apart” looking for something – missing car keys, reading glasses, or the single roll of Scotch tape that we keep for gift wrapping but we can never find when it comes time to wrap a gift? When we say we tore the house apart, we don’t mean it literally. Maybe we emptied a few drawers and dumped the contents of the kitchen garbage can onto the floor to find something, but we don’t literally tear the house apart.
OK, so did you ever say you tore the house apart looking for a noise? The source of a noise, that is? A mystery sound that is keeping you awake nights and driving you crazy during waking hours?
Paul and Jeanette Henry were in just such a predicament when a mystery sound - some low level beeping sound - drove the retired couple to, as they said themselves, the “edge of sanity.” Their words.
And low frequency noises have been found to drive people to that bad place. In fact, studies completed just this past summer have found that certain sounds that aren’t particularly loud fall within a range of megahertz – a unit of sound that measures wave frequencies, like in radio waves – that is incompatible with happiness and general well-being. There’s just something about these low level sound waves that wreak havoc on the brain via the human ear, and this was the kind of noise that Paul and Jeanette Henry were experiencing.
They tore their house apart trying to locate the source of the noise. Literally, they tore their house apart.
They called in electricians and builders and asked them to locate the source of the sound and put a lid on it, to no avail. Next, Paul and Jeanette took crowbars to their walls and tore out whole sections of drywall, tore up floorboards, ripped gaping holes in their ceilings because the noise was just driving them that nuts.
And yet the menacing beep continued to taunt them, probably something like the Raven in the Edgar Allen Poe masterpiece, which if you’ll recall ended badly.
For more than a year, Paul and Jeanette Henry were harassed by this low level beep that could not be found. They were becoming seriously sick with noise-induced stress, sapped of all energy from noise-induced sleeplessness, and from the look of Mr. Henry’s photo in the local newspaper, shedding some major tears in frustration. These two are in their late 60’s, retired, and living with a monster that wouldn’t leave them alone. It’s heart wrenching to think that this nice retired couple had to go through such misery, and that their house has holes in the walls, floors and ceilings all over the place – you can almost picture their manic frustration as they took crowbar and hammer to every solid surface, only to be left with a mess - and a relentless beep…beep…beep.
I had a lump in my throat just reading about their plight, the memory of my own beeping apocalypse still relatively fresh in my mind. Why couldn’t anyone help these poor people? It seems crazy that electricians and builders couldn’t locate the noise source!
Nothing and no one could help them.
They meticulously took apart every one of their grandchildren’s toys in the hopes of discovering a short circuit in a talking Muppet. No luck.
A year of this insanity drove them to the brink. Noise can do that. It makes the blood pressure rise, it exacerbates stress and depression, it can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and the resulting insomnia makes all these conditions even worse. It makes people knock huge holes in their walls, floors and ceilings – people who ordinarily would never do such a rash and destructive thing.
It makes people flee their homes, leaving their smoke alarm hanging from the ceiling like a beaten piñata.
Mr. Henry said that when they first noticed the noise, it wasn’t consistent; it just went off every now and then, so they lived with it.
Eventually, it was a 24/7 menace, beeping every 30 seconds for the better part of a full year.
The Henrys were at their wits end.
One night, Mr. Henry decided to turn off all the lights in the house and follow the sound in the dark, letting his ears guide him. The relentless beep…beep…beep led him through the house, in the dark, like a bloodhound only without needing to smell anything. The sound led Mr. Henry to an old chest of drawers; when he opened the drawer, the beep got louder.
There it was – a 10-year-old smoke alarm unit with a dying battery that someone had shoved in the back of the drawer, probably about a year earlier.
You know the relief they felt – after 12 long months of tearing the house apart to get to the noise source, they had it. Now they were suddenly faced with the realization that it was actually something so simple, and they probably had some burning sense of horror over the condition of their post-beep home. Like waking up out of a nightmare and realizing you put the cat in the dryer and you can’t even believe you did that! And you can't take it back.
But mostly they were relieved. Mrs. Henry says they were amazed, and really relieved.
Noise is a powerful thing. The couple lived with that relentless beeping for so long, the memory of it still torments them. That beep is embedded in their brains.
“We still keep thinking we can hear it," says Mrs. Henry.
I am relieved to say, the sound of my smoke alarm’s beep does not linger in my mind. And although I did manage to shut it up by getting a new battery in it, I was unable to get the unit back in position in the ceiling. I can’t reach, so I have to wait until one of my sons comes to visit me, and both of them live far away, so it could be a while. So I am haunted by my battered piñata of a smoke alarm, still hanging from the ceiling. But at least it’s not beeping.
By now, most people know that noise pollution is unhealthy. Still, too many aren’t familiar with just how unhealthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been increasing its public service messages worldwide since identifying noise as a serious environmental hazard. As part of its campaign to educate global audiences on the dangers of noise pollution, WHO has clarified its warnings by releasing a list of the seven most severe health problems related to noise.
For people living in urban communities, noise pollution is dangerously high, according to WHO. By dangerously high, they’re saying anything over 55 decibels, which equates to an ordinary conversation. Crowded public spaces that combine industrial, commercial, and some residential noise – think industrial and manufacturing plants, air traffic, bustling restaurants, bars and clubs, highways and freeways, and even everyday sounds such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and construction equipment – add up to noise that makes people sick. In fact, we’re asking for trouble in the form of tinnitus just by attending a live concert, sporting event or festival.
It may be hard to believe that so many noisy elements of our everyday lives can be dangerous to our health, a message WHO has been trying to spread for the past decade.
In a nutshell, here are the top seven health effects that noise pollution can lead to:
1. Tinnitus and hearing loss.
Arguably the most common consequence to long stretches of exposure to noise is tinnitus, usually described as a ringing sound within the ear although in some people the sound can be a high-pitched whining, buzzing, hissing, ticking, clicking or roaring. It can take the form of a sound like crickets or tree frogs chirping, beeping, sizzling, sounds that slightly resemble human voices, or even a pure steady tone similar to a tone heard during a hearing test. Tinnitus can be continuous, or it can come and go, and it can cause a lot of distress.
According to WHO, exposure to noise above 55 decibels for long periods of time – more than eight hours daily – can be problematic. Exposure to decibel levels above 85 for eight hours or longer can result in serious hearing damage. A large truck lumbering down a freeway is what 85 decibels sound like. Live rock concerts easily spike over 100 decibels, and are notorious for their after-effects, which can include a ringing in the ears or even temporary hearing loss, depending on the decibel levels, proximity to speakers and length of the concert. When you leave the concert and the tingling in your ears never goes away, you’ve developed tinnitus.
2. Lowered productivity.
Researchers have found that noise pollution has the life-changing effect of reducing cognitive function. In school children, this means delayed learning, stunted reading skills, high rates of distraction, lowered information retention skills and academic performance. For businesses, noise related declines in productivity are expensive, and the impact on businesses is believed to be in the billions of dollars. Adults whose productivity is diminished because of noise pollution experience stunted problem-solving skills, work performance and drive.
3. Decreased communication skills.
Prolonged exposure to noise reduces our ability to communicate effectively. In addition to losing the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, people who have been affected by noise pollution are more readily susceptible to stress, confusion, indecision, faltering speech and impatience.
4. Sleep disorders.
Chronic exposure to high noise levels can interfere with sleep and eventually lead to insomnia, a medical condition that can lead to other health problems. Depression, emotional strain, aggressiveness, and antisocial behavior are just a few of the side effects of noise-induced sleep deprivation. Any time the body’s natural sleep cycle is obstructed, it becomes a health risk that can lead to serious mental and physical illnesses including an increased risk of heart attack.
5. Heart arrhythmia.
Exposure to excessive noise can cause stress and exacerbate cardiovascular disease. It can lead to an elevated heart rate, hypertension, and inappropriate triggers of the brain chemicals that give us our “flight-or-fight” response, which nature meant to alert us to imminent life-or-death danger. When noise is causing false triggers of these chemicals, it takes a toll on the heart and nervous system.
6. Exacerbates psychiatric disorders.
Although medical researchers say that noise does not cause psychiatric disorders, people suffering from a psychiatric condition may find their symptoms worsened by exposure to high noise levels. Those suffering from mental illness experience heightened anxiety, phobias, aggressive behavior, stress, mood swings, and antisocial behavior. On medically weakened patients, particularly children and the elderly, the repercussions of exposure to noise can interfere with healing and weaken their ability to cope.
7. Triggers Negative Emotions.
Clinical studies have shown time and again that low frequency noise - noise from amplified music, pumps, fans, boilers, electrical installations, ventilation systems, and other sources – can conjure extremely negative emotions in some people. Symptoms can include aggression, fatigue, unhappiness, despair, anxiety and distraction, which can influence the everyday behavior of those exposed for long periods of time. Antisocial behaviors such as door slamming and avoiding neighbors or friends can be the result of chronic exposure to low frequency noise.
As more people become familiar with the obvious and subtle damage noise pollution can have on their physical and mental well-being, the expectation is that more individuals will take steps to eliminate or block excessive noise from their environments, for their own well-being and the well-being of loved ones.
FBI Terrorist Screening Center, Vienna, Virginia
In an otherwise quaint community just outside of Washington D.C., noise emanating from an unmarked three-story office building is driving the residents of Vienna, Virginia to distraction. For almost two years the building has been subjecting the Vienna community to a loud, high-pitched noise caused by 23 industrial rooftop air-conditioning units, which residents compare to the sound of a helicopter hovering a block away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It just doesn’t stop.
The building’s only tenant is the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Here agents gather sensitive national security data like no-fly lists. The building houses tons of high tech computing instruments, and to protect the equipment it needs to be kept cool, 24/7.
The noise is coming from 23 “dry cooler” air-conditioning units that run non-stop on the building’s roof. Each unit has 10 high velocity fans – that means 230 high-velocity fans are filling the community with their high velocity fan noise morning, noon and night. The noise is not so loud that it interferes with conversation, but it is loud enough and annoying enough to have locals at their wits’ end. After two years, promises to fix the noise problem have gone unfulfilled, meaning residents’ vulnerability to noise-related health problems has gone unresolved.
One neighbor, Jeff Lewis, told a Washington Post reporter that the “hellish unending noise” is a constant outside his home’s windows. Another neighbor, Ken Foley, says the noise penetrates his home’s double pane windows. Even his air conditioning unit turned up full blast doesn’t drown out the sound. Foley has been asking for help with the noise problem since August, 2010.
Before the FBI moved in, the building on Follin Lane was occupied by the CIA. They were quiet, according to the neighbors. The CIA moved out of the 200,000 square foot building years ago and the building was bought by a Bethseda-based company called Goldstar Group and Chicago-based Transwestern Commercial Services $25 million in 2005. When Goldstar took possession of the building and its 18-acre adjacent property, it told Vienna it would be a good neighbor.
Vienna says they have been anything but a good neighbor.
Although the noise problem didn’t start until 2010, it was in 2007 that the FBI decided to move its Terrorist Screening Center to the property and call it Liberty Park. And here is where it gets really crazy.
The building was gutted and rebuilt prior to the FBI taking occupancy in the fall of 2010. In August of 2010, those 23 air conditioning units were installed on the roof and the noise was immediate and alarming when they were first fired up. Local residents immediately began complaining to town officials, and the Vienna planning and zoning director issued a “modified stop work order” on the building – they were ordered to stop working between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. Nights when the noise continued after 8 p.m., police would be called to the site, and only then would the air conditioning units be shut down for the night.
At first Vienna officials denied the FBI an occupancy permit because of the air conditioners’ noise, but Goldstar, the FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) - the federal agency that helps manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies - promised the town that if the FBI could have the occupancy permit and move in, these three offices would work diligently to correct the noise problem. Town leaders believed what they were told – I mean, it is the FBI we’re talking about here, what could go wrong? So, the occupancy permit was issued in November 2010.
Since air conditioning isn’t a necessity in the D.C. come November, the noise had thinned. But by spring 2011 those 23 air conditioning units were fired up again and the noise pervaded the community night and day. Adding insult to injury, once Goldstar had their occupancy license in hand, the 8 p.m. – 7 a.m. stop work order was nothing but a distant memory. Pleas to Goldstar, the GSA and the FBI to make it stop did not make it stop. It still hasn’t stopped.
In November 2011, Goldstar promised Vienna that a noise absorbing solution would be installed around the roof units. Of course, by then another winter was rolling in and the units were shut down. Spring 2012 turned into a repeat of spring 2011, with more stalling from the building’s owner, more decibel testing by Vienna officials, and more outrage pouring from Vienna’s beleaguered citizens.
One thing that should be addressed in all of this is the long-term health effects this non-stop noise could be having on area residents. Studies prove that exposure to noise above 65 decibels for more than eight hours daily increase the risk of permanent hearing loss, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. But scientists are quick to point out that the decibel levels can be significantly lower than 65 and still have a harmful effect when people are exposed day in and day out with no relief. Many of Vienna’s residents are also suffering from noise-induced sleep deprivation as a result of the building’s din, which exacerbates existing health problems and creates new ones.
Children exposed to noise pollution have trouble concentrating and their school performance suffers. Children, the elderly, and people battling illness are the most vulnerable to noise-related health problems, but no one is immune. One resident says that the noise resembled a propeller plane taking off in his direction. After two years of that imagery, the psychological impact, combined with the fact that it’s loud enough to keep everyone’s stress level high (the fight-or-flight reflex is not meant to be turned on all the time) has the community in an uproar.
Goldstar, at this point, is shuffling papers and issuing statements that basically claim that the building’s operations do not violate any ordinances of the Town of Vienna. However, Goldstar claims that, in collaboration with GSA, it wants to address the noise concerns and “be a good neighbor.’”
Needless to say, after giving the community its word two years ago in exchange for an occupancy permit and then never making good on its word, Goldstar should have no reason to expect the Vienna community to believe, well, one word its company officials say.
Plus, Goldstar is committing only to reducing the noise to “legal levels” – which in Vienna were defined back in 1950, using outdated decibel and frequency measurement criteria.
Air conditioning units like these didn’t even exist when Vienna’s noise ordinance was written, and the effects of noise pollution on human health were not known back then either.
As town officials and residents mull over their next course of action, it’s a tough road any way you look at it. The town absolutely can’t face another summer of noise, and all options are on the table at this point – including a legal injunction.
So despite all the broken promises and the growing resentment of the community, what has kept Vienna residents from taking drastic action even after two years have passed and they still have received no relief from the noise?
Vienna residents are proud to have the Terrorist Screening Center in their community. After all, who wants to sue the Terrorist Screening Center?
An Australian couple could have saved themselves a lot of money and neighborly discord had they looked into installing noise abatement material in their Adelaide home before moving in. Instead, they’ve been hauled off to jail and face fines of $4,000, a figure that will most likely increase with court costs. The relentless noisemaking of Colin MacKenzie, 45 and Jessie Angel, 34 has left the pair demonized by their traumatized neighbors, and a local newspaper poll received almost 10,000 votes from Australian readers who agreed with the police decision to arrest the noisy pair.
They weren’t playing their stereo too loud, and they weren’t fighting. They just happen to be a particularly demonstrative and vocal pair of lovebirds who, according to Colin, spend up to seven hours a day showing each other their love.
But their neighbors aren't feeling the love, and have been complaining to police about the high decibel sounds that keep them awake all night, and shocked, embarassed, and slightly grossed out all day.
Colin is quick to blame his partner, despite the fact that both stand accused of “screaming, loud moaning, swearing and raising their voices.”
“It is mostly Jessie," he told a Perth reporter. "Our average (shenanigans) goes anywhere from four, six, seven hours, basically five nights a week.”
"That's pretty much why I am asleep at six o'clock in the afternoon,” Colin continued. “I will probably die of a heart attack, she is almost killing me as it is."
Jessie, Colin’s soul mate and partner in environmental crime, apparently had a rare burst of silence upon hearing Colin's concern for his heart.
Although studies show that repeated exposure to loud noise can cause heart attacks, roadway traffic and industrial noise are largely the noise sources researchers blame.
However, Colin insists he is not repentant about their behavior, even though police were called to their home 20 times between April and August for excessive noise complaints. In fact, the noise coming from the couple’s love nest repeatedly exceeded EPA noise standards, making them the first to be charged with offences under the Environmental Protection Act as a direct result of noisy love making.
Jessie is the one who has been formally charged by the EPA for breaching the community’s peace and quiet.
After paying 20 visits to the home in just four months, the last few visits - on a recent Sunday night and twice the following Tuesday - resulted in the couple being charged with disturbing the public peace and hindering an environmental protection officer.
"We exceeded the noise pollution (limits) to the point we were arrested and taken out of our own house and told we couldn't have sex," a stunned Jessie told the Perth reporter. And as they began their journey through noise pollution regulation hell, the story made national and international news.
Here's the sequence of events that led to their arrest:
When police were called out on Sunday night at 7:30, Jessie, (deemed by police to be the loudest of the two) was issued an official emergency Environment Protection Order by police:
Apparently Jessie didn’t take it seriously because police were back on Tuesday morning on a new noise complaint. The two were fined $315 for breaching Sunday’s order and given another warning to be quiet. Stunningly, police were called back at 3:30 Tuesday afternoon and the couple, who had by now worn themselves out and fallen asleep, had to be woken up by police to arrest them.
Both were formally charged with breaching the peace, made bail, and went home with orders to appear in Adelaide Magistrates Court next month.
Both Jessie and Colin wonder why their neighbors didn’t simply knock on their door and complain to them personally instead of calling the police. It is not uncommon for people to be hesitant about complaining directly to their noisy neighbors, for fear of an unfriendly reaction or in this case, fear of never catching the couple at the, er, right time. Still the couple feels the complaints were malicious, and wonder if a neighbor or police actually measured the decibel levels of their vocalizations with a decibel meter.
The local police chief said that they don’t like being the killjoys in this situation, and they do believe that people have the right to privacy within their own home. But when their actions have an impact on others, police have no option but to step in.
"In the past, police have been called to this property and warnings were issued,” the police chief said. “On this occasion police had been called earlier in the day, so when they were called back they took steps to ensure neighbors got a good night's sleep."
Noise-related sleep deprivation is a growing problem worldwide, and studies have linked it with long term health problems. However, studies of people suffering from noise-related sleep problems and secondary health issues caused at least in part by sleep deprivation have no known cases of sleep impairment caused by amorous neighbors.
One of Colin and Jessie’s neighbors who was woken early Tuesday when he said he “heard screams.” described the disturbance:
"It was quite loud and they sounded very obscene," he said.
No one asked Colin, Jessie, or the neighbors if anyone had looked into noise reduction solutions that could alleviate a lot trouble for all involved.
We’ll keep you posted on any follow-up.
You can’t help but feel for Mumbai. The commercial and entertainment capital of India, it ranks as a top 10 world commerce leader in terms of global financial flow, generating five percent of India’s GDP. Mumbai is responsible for 25 percent of all of India’s industrial output, 70 percent of the country’s maritime trade, and 70 percent of India’s economic capital transactions.
But Mumbai's noise pollution is eviscerating its citizen's quality of life and challenging the future of its children.
One of the world’s noisiest cities, Mumbai's din is so severe that the future health of its residents is in question. In fact. levels of noise and air pollution in Mumbai are through the roof and rising, and the noise is having a marked effect on the sleep patterns and health of the people who live there.
In residential areas, recent studies show that noise levels have steadily increased both during the daytime and at night over the past five years. The city’s established “silence zones” are never silent, and noise levels measure in at 63 decibels (daytime) and 78 decibels (night time) – the allowed limits are 50 and 40 decibels respectively. In Mumbai, areas within 100 meters (328 feet) of schools, hospitals, shrines and courts are designated as silence zones.
Mumbai has 1,112 designated silence zones that are routinely disregarded. In fact, noise in these silence zones has steadily increased over the past four years, and officials even admit that most people are unaware that silence zones exist in their communities.
According to Mumbian environmentalists and public health officials, its residents are unaware of the health hazards they face from the never-ending exposure to high decibel sounds. Heart attack rates are steadily increasing, and cardiologists blame Mumbai’s dismal noise pollution stats for triggering the stress hormones that increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack significantly. Mumbai’s high air pollution rates are exacerbating the health effects of the city’s noise, which leaves many Mumbian health officials to question what it will take to effectively address this burgeoning risk to the health and welfare of the general population.
Mumbai has some serious obstacles to overcome if it is to ever address its noise pollution problem in any meaningful way. Its citizens are largely unaware of the fact that noise can cause them harm, although the Indian government does consider it a serious problem. By aligning itself with the World Health Organization, the Indian government has tried to establish standard noise caps for residential areas (55 decibels), commercial areas (65 decibels) and industrial areas (75 decibels). However these noise caps are violated daily and offenders are almost never admonished.
In Mumbai, like most of India’s cities, traffic noise is the primary cause of noise pollution, and there is no escape from the 24/7 cacophony of traffic-related sound, from construction to horns hinking incessantly, night and day with no relief. In 2008, to honor World Health Day, Mumbai held a "No Honking Day" – by all accounts a remarkable feat made possible only because of the Mumbai traffic police’s unwaivering efforts to enforce the ban. Mumbai’s citizens had a taste of what it was like to experience a day without the unwelcome blaring of auto horns filling every waking minute. For the average Mumbai citizenm, the respite was nice but only impeded one of the many sources of Mumbai's daily noise monsters.
Predictions were that “No Honking Day” would lead to countless accidents and chaos among both motorists and pedestrians, although no problems occurred. Still, the one day moratorium didn't scratch the surface of Mumbai’s very serious noise pollution problem.
Mumbai and Delhi, two of India’s most important metro areas, are also two of the world’s noisiest places, and the world in general is a dangerously noisy place. Many organizations taking on the world’s noise pollution problems blame governments for waiting too long and not taking the health risks of noise pollution seriously. After all, just 40 years ago most of the world’s inhabitants had some place to go to escape noise levels that were a risk to their hearing and health. Today, the earth's quiet spaces are growing smaller and more elusive from one year to the next.
As long as governments are in bed with corporations, the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens as well as the citizens of most of the world’s major metropolitan areas will never be a priority. Where is the follow-up to environmental reports telling us about the dangers of the noise to which ordinary citizens are subjected? When will the well-being of the people of Mumbai matter to its government more than the economic impact of regulatory compliance?
There’s got to be a Nobel Prize in it for the person who comes up with the answer. In the meantime, the children of Mumbai, Delhi, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and New York City (to name just a few of the world’s noisiest cities) are facing a future of hearing damage and loss, impeded learning, sleep disorders, elevated blood pressure and heart disease without ever having known any other life but one filled with noise.
The U.S. lags behind other industrial nations when it comes to establishing and enforcing federal noise standards, and the problem may boil down to one familiar battle: economics vs. the regulatory process. Stiff resistance to even the suggestion of stronger environmental noise standards leave many wondering if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has any power when it comes to revising out-dated noise standards or even enforcing standards put in place.
Noise pollution awareness is an uphill battle it seems, but New York City has made formidable progress over the past 15-20 years in toning down its volume. Anyone else remember the constant blare of taxi horns in Manhattan prior to the mid- to late 1990s, when laws were put in place to silence them? Although New York has worked hard to make the city less horrible in the noise pollution department, it still has a long way to go - as do most U.S. cities.
A recent test of sound levels at a handful of bars, gym, and restaurants in New York City measured noise levels so high that guests and employees exposed to the noise for just two hours are put at risk, and the establishments could be in violation of OSHA safety standards if anyone was bothering to enforce them.
But audiologists say that even if these businesses were in compliance with OSHA standards, it wouldn’t be enough to protect workers’ hearing. The fact is, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries when it comes to federal noise protection standards.
The New York Times did a recent “sound tour” of Manhattan, using a noise docimeter to measure decibel levels at 37 businesses including gyms, shops, bars and restaurants. Guided by Rick Neitzel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center, the dosimeter used A-weighting, a science that mimics the human ear’s sensitivity to sound at different frequencies.[i]
Nietzel, who has a substantial background in noise exposure research, in New York City and elsewhere, formatted the dosimeter to record various doses, based on standards established by OSHA, the National Institute for Occupations Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The docimeter was used to measure noise levels for exposure periods of 20 minutes to eight hours.
If you’re not familiar with how OSHA’s decibel exposure formula works, allow me to describe it as simply as possible. Basically, OSHA requires workers who are exposed to 90 decibels for eight hours to wear hearing protection. Ninety decibels is the approximate noise equivalent of heavy truck traffic.
OSHA states that when noise increases by five decibels, the noise workers are exposed to actually doubles. That means workers who needed hearing protection when exposed to eight hours at 90 decibels can only work four hours without ear plugs if the decibel level goes up to 95.
This might seem reasonable, unless you have worked in a 90-95 decibel environment for years, in which case you’re probably suffering from tinnitus and some significant level of hearing loss, not to mention possible cardio-vascular illness, high blood pressure, stress, and a sleep disorder. And harmful noise exposure is not limited to industrial environments. Teachers exposed to classroom noise for years are suffering from serious hearing loss by the time they reach middle age. If you work in a noisy restaurant with lots of hard surfaces off of which noise ricochets, or a bar in which conversations require yelling to be heard, or a gym with aerobics or spin class music blasting at 105 decibels - you’re probably at risk. Toll booth workers, shopping mall employees, telephone call center staff – and the list goes on, as noise today is an ubiquitous problem that many people have come to accept as part of daily life.
But other countries are doing a better job at complying with established noise standards. In fact, the U.S. is number 23 when it comes to noise exposure standards, tailing Argentina, Chile, Australia and the UK (to name just a few) in noise pollution protection. Britain is taking noise pollution very seriously, as it proved last week when Hyde Park police pulled the plug on a Bruce Springsteen/Paul McCartney concert that ran 10 minutes past the community’s noise curfew.
In fact, Britain has a Web site where people can calculate their daily doses of noise. Canada conducts audiological testing on its teachers annually to make sure they are not going deaf, and to take measures to protect those who are. Brazil and Australia have programs in place that call for routine risk assessments and revisions to broaden the scope of noise-related health and hearing protection and preventive initiatives.
Some powerful U.S. organizations may see to it that the U.S. stays at the bottom of the noise awareness pile despite the health risks of high decibel work environments. In 2010, OSHA reminded employers that providing earplugs for hearing protection in noisy work environments was only meant to be a temporary measure, and the agency would begin enforcing regulations requiring employers to soundproof noisy workplaces that did not comply with decibel limit recommendations. The move was necessary, OSHA representatives said, because too many workers were being harmed by workplace noise.
Additionally, the decibel limit was to be lowered to 85 – the same standard set in 21 of those 22 countries that rank ahead of the U.S. in noise exposure safety. India, home of the world’s two noisiest cities (Mumbai and Kolkata) is the only other country with a 90 decibel worker safety threshold. Plus, under the stricter guidelines, employers would need to acknowledge the change to from five to three decibels doubling the risk of hearing loss.
Before it had a chance to reach public service announcement status, OSHA’s mandate was slapped down by the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, who claimed the revised guidelines would be too expensive.
Audiologist and President of the National Hearing Conservation Association Laura Kauth says that the general consensus of hearing health professionals is that the U.S. should be adopting the 85 decibel limit in the workplace, and acknowledging the three-decibel standard for noise dose doubling, since regardless of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce objections, U.S. employees are at risk under existing standards.
The New York Times study recorded the average noise level on a recent Saturday night at Manhattan restaurant Beaumarchais at 99 decibels. Under OSHA’s updated standards, exposure to the noise levels in this eatery becomes unsafe to workers after only 19 minutes on the job.
Enforcement of noise regulations at gyms, bars and restaurants in New York is largely non-existent. When employees complain about noise levels, their objections are almost never being reported to OSHA. Noise control proponents say that lack of awareness at the federal level could be partly to blame. The only federal department assigned to address environmental noise, the Office of Noise Abatement, was defunded 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan, and States were notified then that they would no longer receive federal assistance to curb noise pollution.
Just one month after OSHA proposed the stricter guidelines in 2010, the agency withdrew its proposal.
[i] Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar, Cara Buckley, New York Times, July 19, 2012
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.
Despite the fact that the health effects of noise on most of the earth's population are demonstrably serious, noise pollution continues to be largely ignored by the environmental agencies, world governments, and most of the individuals it is harming. Second hand smoke earned a long, vocal, and eventually effective campaign to raise awareness and eventually create change. Second hand noise needs such a campaign.
Noise pollution is damaging our hearing, stressing us out, contributing to heart disease and interfering with our ability to sleep, concentrate, and be productive. It has proven to interfere with childrens' ability to learn. People who suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness - from depression to schizophrenia - suffer heightened symptoms when exposure to noise is chronic, which is the case in most cities, areas adjacent to highways or near airports, in mixed-use communities with industrial plants and night clubs intermingled with residential neighborhoods.
Below is an article by A.J. Jacobs excerpted from the Wall Street Journal about his recent realization of the seriousness of noise pollution's damage to our hearing and health. The article describes an epiphany-like awareness of the effects of continual noise when it occurs to him that his three small sons, adorable noise-makers in their own right - are facing lifelong exposure to unhealthy noise levels, without even leaving their home. Jacobs makes many excellent observations in the article, but my favorite really hit home:
"A decibel level above 85—the sound of a lawn mower—can cause permanent hearing loss. My son's tantrum over missing the last five minutes of "Bubble Guppies" registered at 91, a subway car as it entered the station hit 110."
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Unsafe
Noise is one of the great neglected health hazards of our time - the second hand smoke of our ears.
By A.J. Jacobs
My wife and I recently took our three sons to Benihana for dinner. It's their favorite restaurant, thanks to the unbeatable combination of airborne food and machete-size knives.
But what I noticed was the noise: the hiss of the soy sauce on the grill, the escalating chatter of the crowd—and our young sons, who are loud beyond comprehension. Each carried a little plastic trumpet from a birthday party, so it was like being followed around by our own private South African soccer game. We finally pried the ghastly instruments from their hands.
I've started to become aware of just how loud our world is. Spend an hour listening. The chirping text messages, the droning airplanes, the flatulent trucks,the howling cable pundits, the chiming MacBooks.
And noise is no minor nuisance. It is one of the great underappreciated health hazards of our time - the second hand smoke of our times.
Noise pollution doesn't get the attention of A-list diseases, but there are a few crusaders raising their voices against the onslaught. One of them is Arline Bronzaft. a professor emeritus at the City University of New York.
What's the problem with this high-decibel world? "The most obvious one is hearing loss," Dr. Bronzaft says. Some 26 million adults are walking around with noise-induced hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Noise also has a surprisingly potent effect on our stress level, cardiovascular system and concentration. In Paleo times, a loud noise signaled a threat, so noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure.
A University of British Columbia review of 6,300 people who work in noisy jobs found that they suffer two to three times more heart problems than those who work in quiet settings. A former World Health Organization official estimates (with a bit of alarmism) that noise-induced strain may cause 45,000 deadly heart attacks a year.
Noise also wreaks havoc on the brain. Dr. Bronzaft conducted a landmark study at a public school in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, published in the journal Environment and Behavior in 1975. Some of the classrooms directly faced an elevated subway track. Every five minutes the students heard a train rattle by. Other classrooms were tucked on the opposite side of the building, away from the noise. The difference? By the sixth grade, the kids on the noisy side were nearly a year behind. Since then, her conclusions about the effects of noise on concentration have been backed up by a pile of other studies, on both students and adults.
After meeting Dr. Bronzaft, I pledged to turn down the volume on my own life. I started in my kids' room. I dug out all of their beeping, yammering electronic toys and spent a half-hour putting masking tape over the plastic speakers
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Just how loud is that tantrum? The decibel meter says: ouch.
"What are you doing, Daddy?" asked my son Zane. "Just fixing the broken toys," I half-lied. It was a smashing success, at least from my point of view. You can still hear "Chicken Dance Elmo" demand that we "flap our wings," but he sounds like he's submerged in a bathtub, which is what I'd really like to do to him.
Next up, ear protection. I tried rubber earplugs for a week, but I found them uncomfortable, so I shelled out for Bose noise-canceling headphones. On a plane trip to Atlanta, I slipped them over my ears, clicked the power switch and…well, the world didn't go silent. But the headphones did turn the volume down from a 10 to a 7. Life took on a sort of dreamy, uterine feel.
In the next few weeks, I started to wear my headphones more and more—big silver-and-black earmuffs. My wife, Julie, has taken to calling me Lionel Richie, because I look like I just walked out of the recording studio for "We Are the World." She remains skeptical, though, so to prove just how perilously loud our lives are, I ordered a decibel meter that I now take everywhere.
A decibel level above 85—the sound of a lawn mower—can cause permanent hearing loss. My son's tantrum over missing the last five minutes of "Bubble Guppies" registered at 91, a subway car as it entered the station hit 110.
I tried to get a reading in an argument with Julie about whether or not I misplaced her Time magazine, but when I put the decibel meter near her mouth, she refused to talk. As the physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered about the quantum world, taking measurements can mess with reality.
By A.J. Jacobs, Wall Street Journal, 3/24/2012.
—Adapted from "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection" by A.J. Jacobs, out in early April from Simon & Schuster.
Parents who hope to help their children adjust to the stress of everyday life may want to turn down the noise at home.
A Purdue University psychologist says children who come from highly noisy or chaotic households can experience delayed language skills and increased anxiety.
Theodore Wachs has studied environmental influences on early childhood development and helped create a questionnaire to help parents measure the level of "noise confusion" in their homes. Wachs says children need some quiet space at home and some sense of order. Otherwise they're more likely to have trouble adjusting to changing environments outside the home, including school, socialization opportunities, and even ordinary outings to restaurants or religious services.
The effects of ongoing exposure to loud noise can vary with the temperament and sex of a child, according to Wachs.
"Those who have the most trouble are boys who are intense, fussy, or negative."
Wachs recommends parents stop using the TV as a source of background noise and help their children establish a quiet place where the children can retreat, even if it's a small room, a study, or a bedroom that is used only for quiet time.
The location of the family home can also have an effect; studies show that children who live in noisy areas, such as on on highly trafficked roadways, or close to busy airports have poorer reading skills than those in quieter areas, according to findings reported in the New Scientist.
Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, suggest this is because children raised in noisy environments find it harder to recognize and understand human speech. A study compared 58 children who lived under a New York City airport flight path with 50 children from quiet neighborhoods void of chronic noise levels. Those children raised in noisy environments were found to have more trouble reading, and recognizing and understanding spoken words.
Like adults, children exposed to long periods of loud noise can also suffer higher anxiety levels than their peers raised in quieter surroundings, which can eventually lead to long term health issues, including hearing loss, high blood pressure, inability to concentrate, and other challenges.
There are options for creating quiet spaces in homes exposed to internal and external noise. For instance, despite their architectural appeal, ceiling heights are critical in determining acoustical integrity in homes, schools, daycare centers, and other spaces in which children spend time. Ceiling heights over 14 feet are the most problematic in terms of noise levels, as they offer no acoustical balance unless they are treated with high quality noise deadening material attached to the studs under the drywall during the construction process. Other products available that can be applied on top of the drywall have shown promising soundprofing resuts, although the best noise barrier material goes in during construction or renovations, under the drywall.
Chronic exposure to noise has been shown to be harmful to children of all ages. It can have especially detrimental effects on younger children when language and discrimination skills are forming. Often, major noise sources are not considered when it comes to designing the spaces used by children. Designers need to be more aware of noise issues when planning spaces that will be used by children. In child care centers, spaces must allow for the fact that children need to make noise, but the subsequent noise levels should not be harmful to them or others in the center.
Loud noise can have serious consequences to an individual’s health and well being. Elevated workplace or other noise can cause hearing impairment, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, stress-releated illnesses, premature ejaculation, sleep disturbance, decreased sexual performance and even death. Some experts suggest that changes in the immune system and birth defects have been attributed to noise exposure, although evidence is limited. Although some hearing loss may occur naturally with age, in many developed nations the cumulative impact of noise is sufficient to impair the hearing of a large portion of the population over the course of a lifetime. Exposure to loud noise has also been known to induce tinnitus, hypertension, vasoconstriction and other cardiovascular impacts. Beyond these effects, elevated noise levels can create stress, increase workplace accident rates, and stimulate aggression and other anti-social behaviors. The most significant culprits are vehicle and aircraft noise, prolonged exposure to loud music, and industrial noise.
The social costs of traffic noise in European countries and the U.S. is in the billions of dollars per year, with traffic noise alone is harming the health of one in every three people in some high-traffic communities. One in five individuals is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health.
The location of site and noise generators near sites which are noisy include major roads, railroads, industrial plants, etc. Traffic maps and land use maps from highway departments, planning agencies, railroads, and airport authorities may document such noise generators.
Noise is also a detriment to animal habitats and ecosystems.
Acoustiblok’s all weather sound panels and other noise abatement products are helping industries and individuals combat noise-related problems every day. Acoustiblok’s sound absorption capability is more effective than a 12-inch poured concrete barrier.