People everywhere are subjected to ambient noise from construction equipment, air traffic, noisy neighbors, barking dogs, road traffic and a multitude of sources that contribute to serious noise-related health problems.
In the last U.S. Census report, Americans named noise as the number one problem in neighborhoods. Of the households surveyed, 11.3-percent stated that street or traffic noise was bothersome, and 4.4-percent said that the noise problems in their neighborhood were so bad, they wanted to move. More Americans are bothered by noise than by crime, odors and other problems listed under "other bothersome conditions."
News agencies including CNN, the BBC and others are beginning to take a serious look at the health ramifications of noise in our everyday lives. Although many people might argue that humans have become conditioned to suppress noise, defined as “unwanted sound,” it can actually cause a physical response at a conscious or subconscious level that is often detrimental to the human body. In fact, most of us do not consciously register all the noise our bodies absorb every day, yet our well-being is being seriously damaged by modern sound. Here are five things about sound and health that you may not know:
1.) You are a chord. This is obvious from physics, though it's admittedly somewhat metaphorical to call the combined rhythms and vibrations within a human being a chord, which we usually understand to be an aesthetically pleasant audible collection of tones. But "the fundamental characteristic of nature is periodic functioning in frequency, or musical pitch," according to C.T. Eagle. Matter is vibrating energy; therefore, we are a collection of vibrations of many kinds, which can be considered a chord.
2.) One definition of health is when the chord is in complete harmony. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" which opens at least three dimensions to the concept.
3.) We see one octave; we hear ten. An octave is a doubling in frequency. The visual spectrum in frequency terms is 400-790 THz, so it's just under one octave. Humans with great hearing can hear from 20 Hz to 20 KHz, which is ten octaves.
4.) Noise harms and even kills. There is now a wealth of evidence about the harmful effect of noise, and yet most people still consider noise a local matter, not the major global issue it has become.
According to the European Union, “Around 20-percent of Europe’s (approximately 80 million people) suffer from noise levels that scientists and health experts consider to be unacceptable – that is, levels where most people become annoyed, where sleep is disturbed and where adverse health effects are to be feared. An additional 170 million citizens are living in so-called 'grey areas' where the noise levels are such to cause serious annoyance during the daytime."
The World Health Organization (WHO) says "Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health."
The WHO is also the source for the startling statistic about noise killing 200,000 people a year. Its findings (LARES report) estimate that 3 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease result from long-term exposure to noise. With 7 million deaths a year globally, that means 210,000 people are dying of noise every year.
The cost of noise to society is astronomical. The EU again: "Present economic estimates of the annual damage in the EU due to environmental noise range from EUR 13 billion to 38 billion. Elements that contribute are a reduction of housing prices, medical costs, reduced possibilities of land use and cost of lost labor days." (Future Noise Policy European Commission Green Paper 1996).
Then there is the effect of noise on social behavior. The U.S. report "Noise and its effects" (Administrative Conference of the United States, Alice Suter, 1991) says: "Even moderate noise levels can increase anxiety, decrease the incidence of helping behavior, and increase the risk of hostile behavior in experimental subjects. These effects may, to some extent, help explain the "dehumanization" of today's urban environment."
Excerpted from a CNN 2010 Opinion article from 10/10/2010 by Julian Treasure, the author of "Sound Business."
Edward L. Sadowsky of Long Island City complains that officials have not muffled the fans in a building visible from his 39th floor apartment. Below: The fans seen from Sadowsdky's window.
In New York City, industrial fans that clean subway airspace when workers are making repairs are driving people to distraction – and sleepless nights. In fact, for some residents of Queens the noise from the fans makes sleep virtually impossible.
They have been in place for decades and sound like a giant rattle shaken at great speeds, unrelentingly and with no set pattern. One weekend they might run for just an hour, the next weekend for 24 hours straight. At a subsidized housing complex for the elderly that sits right next to the fans, the sound became so intense and lasted so long, people approached the building’s superintendent crying because the noise prevented them from sleeping.
The fans are necessary for maintenance crews to do their jobs. However, the sound that one neighbor compares to “a blender running at full speed on the pillow next to him,” and another to the roar of a jet engine just before takeoff, the potential for serious health effects is high. .
“I wear earplugs, I put a pillow over my head, but I still can hear it,” said Nancy Haitch, who lives on the 11th floor of the building, Citylights, the first residential high-rise built in what was once an industrial wasteland.
Area residents affected by the fan noise have lodged complaints through the city’s 311 system and with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but to no avail.
Transit officials say that it would cost $300,000 to muffle the noise, but that money would be hard to come by with the agency facing serious financial problems. The authority offered a reprieve last weekend: It instead turned on fans in Manhattan, on the eastern edge of Tudor City, according to a transit worker stationed by the fans in Queens.
“These are real people, and it’s real lives being affected,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the neighborhood affected by the fan noise and organized the meeting. “We’re talking about sleepless nights here, not just an inconvenience.”
Charles F. Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit, which operates the subway and bus service, could not say when the fans would come on during this period.
“I don’t have the schedule in front of me,” he said in an interview. Mr. Seaton added that while the agency has been considering a couple of alternatives to address the problem, “It would be a little bit premature to say what they are and how they would affect the fans’ noise.”
At Citylights — which has 42 floors and offers breathtaking views of the city — the noise has become the topic of conversation among neighbors who bump into one another in the lobby, in an elevator or at the lounge next door. And in some ways, it has brought them closer together. Mr. Christie, an office manager who has lived in the building since 1997 when it welcomed its first residents, said that though he welcomes the camaraderie, he is more concerned with how the noise might be affecting his health.
“I find myself going to bed at night wondering if the fans will come on and wake me up,” Mr. Christie, 44, said. “This unpredictability is psychologically draining, and after a while, it really gets to you.”
Excerpted from an article by By Fernanda Santos, New York Times