As someone who has been writing about noise pollution for more than three years, I have come to understand the insidious threat that noise is to pretty much everyone on the planet. Yet for some reason, noise pollution is largely ignored by environmental agencies, law enforcement, and ordinary citizens who either don’t understand the toll noise takes on our health and well being, or who think they have no recourse.
After spending the better part of the past three months searching for a new apartment, it dawned on me how much my growing awareness of the poison that is noise has changed my priorities. I’ve always loved city living, and loved living in the heart of downtown Tampa for these past two years. But the relentless barking of miserably sheltered dogs, the pounding bass of passing boom cars, and the continuous buzz of construction noise, neighbors’ stereos, traffic – it has caught up with me. I needed to move, but I set out looking for a nice first floor apartment in a gated community.
However, after traipsing through half a dozen of these idyllic communities – Tampa is loaded with them – I realized quickly that, although the dogs barking were smaller (a different kind of annoying) and the boom cars were absent, the ambient noise was hardly improved. Traffic noise from busy nearby highways still seep in, along with other modern noise culprits.
Uncontrolled noise pollution has infiltrated our living spaces to such a degree, many people don’t realize the toll it’s taking. It’s not uncommon to tell oneself that you’ve grown used to certain noises in your environment; air traffic, if you live near an airport for instance, or the drone of a neighbor’s heat pump. Unfettered noise can not only harm our quality of life, but it can reduce property values as our neighborhoods become less sought after place to live.
Noise pollution is tricky. It’s not visible, and often highly subjective. In residential communities, noise pollution frequently occurs when the “perpetrator” is not home to control it, and often stops before law enforcement can confirm there’s a problem. Unfortunately, it is a low priority for police, who are the respondents in most communities to noise complaints.
Because of the lack of attention paid to noise pollution – another Earth Day just passed without a mention of it – most people suffer in silence, not wanting to have a problem with the people behind the source of the noise, or simply believing complaining does no good. Some noise can be troubling to one person and not bother another at all. Such subjectivity over what noise is problematic can add another obstacle to finding a workable resolution. Yet studies show that people consistently rank noise as an important quality of life issue. When noise levels are consistently high, humans suffer from stress and stress-related illness.
Perhaps the greatest concern now is that over time, as noise pollution becomes more common in residential communities, everyone’s expectations of how quiet their neighborhood should be will decrease. People will complain less, and just try to live with it—to the detriment of their quality of life, health, and neighborhood.
Perhaps because I come from a large family, as an adult I have always appreciated peace and quiet wherever I can get it. In recent years, when I choose places to spend my vacations I seek quiet surroundings more often than not; I used to head straight for New York, Paris, Madrid – now I seek the quietest beach or most isolated corner I can afford to get to. I have developed tinnitus, which is more common than it should be, although I can’t tell you when – my ears had been ringing for years before I actually took note of it. Today, one in three people I ask tell me they have tinnitus, and have had it for years.
Since writing about the effects of noise on humans, wildlife, and even plant life (noise kills trees!) I have learned a lot about the effects of noise in different areas of the world. India, for instance, contains the world’s noisiest city – Mumbai – and the noise related health problems of Mumbai residents are bordering catastrophic. To its credit, the Indian government is beginning to enforce some of the strict noise ordinances recently put in place, but India’s culture is a noisy one. It will take years of education and enforcement to undo generations of traditions and lifestyles in which noise is a common part of the fabric.
Sound abatement technology keeps improving, and some industries are beginning to embrace it – often due either to pressure from government or irritated neighbors. But 21st century lifestyles have incorporated new and growing noise control challenges that more people have to identify and address.
When the hazards of second hand cigarette smoke first became an issue, many people scoffed, but eventually everyone listened and people either learned to isolate their smoking from others, or they quit. Taking control of noise pollution is going to require the same style of self awareness and self-discipline – wearing headphones when you want to blast the music (although you’ll still be hammering your own hearing); finding an alternative to the boom car for public coolness; placing noise abatement solutions around noisy HVAC units, pool pumps, and generators. Mowing grass and using power tools when your neighbors are not trying to sleep or sit down to dinner.
There are other sounds over which we have no control – emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters, commercial aircrafts, industrial vehicles, industrial machinery, and – oh yes the neighbor’s barking dog.
It is not realistic to think we can completely control noise, nor is it realistic to believe that local police should be interventionists when the neighbor’s noise levels are keeping us awake. People need to be educated about the effects of noise pollution on everyone’s life and health, and from there, take action. No more passive acceptance of noise pollution in our neighborhoods because much of it can be curtailed with simple common sense and courtesy. Special noise enforcement units should be set up separately from law enforcement, staffed with people trained in acoustics and sound measuring, who work full time at controlling noise pollution.
Last week, I wrote about the noted affects of noise on the iconic pinyon tree of the American Southwest Mesas. In all, the deterioration of the pinyon is already adversely affecting about 1,000 species of fungi, insects, arthropods, mammals and birds depend on tree for their survival.
This week, new findings are beginning to prove that noise pollution is interfering with the reproductive choices of birds as well. Male birds are the crooners in nature; the tone of their song plays a critical role in the mating protocol of most feathered species. Birds in urban communities and communities exposed to high decibel traffic and industrial noise are singing and chirping in a different tune than that which nature provided, in order to be heard above the din of the manmade noise with which they must now compete. In the process of changing their singing tone to be able to hear one another, they are losing their natural key - their specific mating call that serves to attract females. If they were to quit fighting the noise and maintain their natural singing voices, chances are they won’t be heard by potential mates at all.
According to Wouter Halfwerk, a behavioral ecologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, lower frequency singing among male song birds has the vibe that brings the lady birds calling. Let’s call it the Barry White songbird vibe. When given the choice between a low pitched Barry White vibrato and, say, a high pitched Barry Gibb staccato, the lady birds choose Barry White every time.
“If females can hear all song types equally well, they will go for the sexy ones,” Halfwerk says. “But if they cannot hear the sexy ones well anymore, then they might just go for the songs they can still hear.
"It could very well be that noise pollution is interfering with reproductive decisions by females."
However, females are working a little harder than they used to, to identify quality mates who are practicing their sexy voices and keeping them in tune. Halfwerk, along with a group of scientists studying the effects of manmade noise on animals, did some spying and discovered that certain females may be canoodling with another male on the sly if their own mate’s singing tone isn’t doing it for them.
Apparently these untrustworthy female birds are sneaking out of the nest in the early morning hours, chasing after a nearby Barry White crooner – a rendezvous which for birds only takes about 60 seconds – and she’s back in the nest, never missed. That’s right – researchers surmised that the males that sang in higher (Barry Gibb) registers were more likely to be cuckolded than the low-throated crooners.
Since they wouldn’t be real researchers if they didn’t consider every opportunity to challenge their hypothesis, the scientists conducted paternity tests on the offspring and discovered that about 30% of the nest-dwelling partner males were not the baby daddy. Overall, the males that sang in new, high pitched frequencies to be heard above the manmade noise – most notably around the time that the lady birds were at their most fertile – were the males that ended up unwittingly helping to raise another bird’s offspring.
Next, these same researchers fitted nests with microphones and speakers, and tracked the females while they were subjected to different recordings of their mates’ calls. The researchers also funneled in noise that mimicked traffic sounds to see if it had any effect on the females.
With urban noise in the mix, the females responded to their mates' high-pitched calls more often than the lower, sexier (Barry White) calls — probably because they could hear them better.
The results of these studies have confirmed that while noise pollution does interfere with the birds' ability to communicate during their high-stakes mating games, they’re still managing to mate. Still, previous studies have shown that a variety of birds can suffer when they change their songs, according to Erin Bayne, an ornithologist at the University of Alberta. The new study is one of the first to explain why.
As more research data is completed on the effects of manmade noise on animals, nothing is being done to temper noise pollution, which is as insidious to human health as it is to a bird on the wire.
Manmade noise is killing the Iconic Pinyon tree in the Southwest, which is relulting in the loss of habitat and resulting exodus of the scrub jay, and an increase in black chin hummingbirds, flowers, and mice.
If you're thinking that it's April showers bringing those May flowers, you might want to think again, at least if your outdoor environment is particularly noisy. It appears that noise indirectly generates an increase in the growth of flowers and hummingbird populations! Nice!
Actually, not so nice.
Of course there had to be a catch here, as noise pollution really has no positive outcome, so researchers went looking for the cause of this abundant burst of spring beauty, only to discover that the spike in flora and nectar-sipping Trochilidae is the result of a rapid decline in trees - the victims of man-made noise pollution.
In a new study published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers point to a noticeable decline in pinyon (or piñon) pine trees in noisy communities; pinyon pines rely on scrub jays to disperse their seeds. When the trees began to die off as a result of exposure to high levels of man-made noise, the scrub jays were forced to move to find new habitat.
Interestingly, black-chinned hummingbirds actually seek out noisy areas when they go about their flower pollinating business to avoid the scrub jays, which have a taste for hummingbird nestlings and eggs.
How did reasearchers conclude that it was noise that was killing the trees and throwing the natural balance of flora and fauna off kilter? Well, they began with a hunch, since it was the noisiest communities near natural gas wells operating high-decibel compressors that were that were losing their shady spots on the Mesas and red rocks of their landscapes.
Pinyons have been part of the Southwest U.S. landscape for centuries. Their existence in the arid and rocky canyons of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California began when ancestral Puebloans, formerly known as the Anasazi, used pinyon poles as door headers in their dwellings and stashed pinyon nuts in the area more than 400 years ago.
A testament to the growing power of the pinyon, the original trees sprouted from an isolated grove found in Owl Creek Canyon near Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Scientists set up motion-activated cameras at a variety of sites in the Rattlesnake Canyon Wildlife Area, in northwestern New Mexico. Some of the sites monitored were quiet; others subjected to noise from the gas well compressors. While the scrub jays fled from their nests in the noisy areas, mice (like the hummingbirds) took advantage to feast on the pinyon seeds, and the rodent population increased.
Before the Royal Society study began, an earlier study reported that about 1,000 species of fungi, insects, arthropods, mammals and birds depend on pinyons. When it becomes evident that noise pollution has the ability to affect and potentially eradicate an entire ecosystem, the true impact of noise on the human as well as animal and plant life could be staggering.
Evolutionary Ecologist Clinton D. Francis of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., says the noise pollution-triggered changes in these centuries-old landscapes and habitats will have a serious impact on the ecosystem of the Southwest. The scrub jays, Francis points out, will hide thousands of pinion seeds in the autumn and build up a store of food. However, they forget some of their hiding spots, and the forgotten seeds can grow into seedlings. Mice, on the other hand, tend to eat all the seeds they find, which will strip the area of the pinion pine tree eventually. Dr. Francis says he worries about the loss of pinyon pines, which play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the Southwest.