Noise. No other pollutant ruins nearly as many lives in industrialised countries as noise – and it is the only one known to drive sufferers to murder – yet few receive so little public attention. Green pressure groups, so vocal on so many environmental threats, are almost universally silent about it. Virtually no governments, anywhere in the world, seem to be prepared to give the case for comprehensive action much of a hearing.
Hearing and health suffer. One in every eight American youngsters, aged six to 19, has been found to have noise-related hearing loss, while Stewart predicts: “Within a decade or two, the iPod in the ear could be replaced with the hearing aid.” Learning can be affected. A study in a Manhattan school found that children in classrooms beside a busy train track recorded reading scores 11 months behind their counterparts on the quiet side of the building. When measures were taken to reduce the noise, they caught up.
Two thirds of Europeans – 450 million people – are exposed every day to noise levels that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says are unacceptable. In Britain, more than half a million people appear to move home every year to escape the din. Ten years ago, a survey found that 12 million of us were disturbed by traffic, 3.5 million by passing aircraft, and 11 million by noisy neighbors. This is bound to have got worse: household noise complaints have risen five-fold over the past two decades.
Of course, we have been surrounded by sound since before birth – the womb is quite a noisy place – and noise pollution is as old as civilization. Two and a half thousand years ago, Buddhist scriptures recorded the “10 great noises” of contemporary cities as “elephants, horses, chariots, drums, tabors, lutes, songs, cymbols, gongs and people crying 'Eat ye, and drink!’ ”. Just over 100 years ago, a “plague of city noises” described in New York was not far different: “horse-drawn vehicles, pedlars, musicians, animals and bells”.
Within a few decades, this changed; the 10 most annoying noises identified in a New York survey in 1929 all emanated from machines, and since then the automated cacophony has escalated. Particularly disturbing – as a new book by one of Britain’s leading environmental campaigners, John Stewart, points out – is the low-frequency noise produced by aircraft, wind turbines and many household appliances such as washing machines and air conditioners. “The rise and rise of low-frequency noise,” he writes in Why Noise Matters, “is part of the reason for the growing number of noise complaints.”
But only part. More people say they hate piped music in shops, restaurants and public buildings than like it. Noisy neighbours occasionally provoke their victims to kill them. And while some endure – or even seem to enjoy – noise, about one in 10 people are particularly sensitive to it.
Noise also raises blood pressure and increases heart rates, especially at night, leading to cardiovascular and other diseases, as well as affecting sleep. The WHO calculated this year that Europeans collectively lose at least a million years of healthy living as a result.
Wildlife, which relies on sound to communicate, is affected too. It’s most obvious in the oceans, where underwater noise is estimated to have doubled each decade over the past 50 years – shipping has grown, oil and gas prospectors use loud blasts from “airguns” to scope the sea bed, and navies increasingly rely on sonar. Whole populations of whales and dolphins – which often use much the same frequencies – are potentially threatened, and fish catches have fallen. And noise on land disrupts intricate ecosystems of sound, where different species divide the acoustic spectrum between them so that they do not interfere with each other’s communication.
Many of the solutions are known: traffic noise could be cut by 70 per cent; shipping could be made much quieter; sound insulation in homes could reduce neighbor noise; and piped music could be simply turned off. Indeed, on Tuesday, the Noise Abatement Society will hand out awards to pioneering British councils. But, Stewart reports, only two governments – China and Hong Kong – have undertaken comprehensive programs.
In Britain, if anything, political interest has waned. The Labour government repeatedly promised to publish a consultation document on a national noise strategy, but never did so. Three years ago, the Lords passed a Bill to restrict piped music, but it was not taken up in the Commons. And the EU’s record is little better: it has neither carried out a comprehensive assessment of what the hazard costs people and society, nor set targets for its reduction – as it has with, for example, air pollution. One way or another, it is time to make a lot more noise about noise.
Excerpted from an article by Geoffrey Lean
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.