Noise is weird. And just as science seems to catch up with new information regarding the effects of noise on humans, some new weird factor is called into play.
Most people today understand that noise can affect humans negatively, but not everyone realizes that harmful noise is not limited to those sounds that make everyone’s pulse race and ears hurt, like police and ambulance sirens racing through the streets, loud amps and speakers at heavy metal concerts, and the ear-piercing shriek of a NASCAR event. These sounds glean the same reactions from most caught in their path, and it’s rarely a good one.
But less in-your-face sounds can be just as troubling to our hearing and health as the obvious noise offenders listed above. A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that the chronic din of ambient construction noise, road repair projects, airline traffic and even neighborhood lawn equipment is chiseling away at our sensitivity to sounds every day, and the results are not good, even if we stopped noticing them.
Noise, defined as unwanted sound, is largely a matter of individual perception. For instance, the sound of car-rocking rap tunes blasting from a passing auto are going to get a different response from the vehicle’s passengers than the residents of the quiet residential street through which it’s passing at 11:00 at night. In fact, individual perception has made it difficult to provide scientific proof of the health effects of noise, since the reaction to many sounds is going to depend on sensitivity and personal perception.
Still, study after study has found that noise in communities is interrupting our sleep, interfering with our children's learning, suppressing our immune systems and even increasing our chances of having a heart attack.
And experts on the effects of noise on our health are quick to remind us that we should not have to tolerate living with noise.
Everyday noise is under the radar, yet it affects everyone's life. No one would agree to live with “just a little” sewage in their water, so why should anyone tolerate noise pollution coming into their ears?
For instance, when your neighbor uses a leaf blower in his yard, he may be generating a sound that is only a little less intense than the 85 decibels that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says is physically damaging over a period of hours, but still more than loud enough to make it almost impossible for anyone within earshot to concentrate.
Modern transportation -- cars, motorcycles, trains, trucks and air traffic -- accounts for most of the background noise that disturbs and even sickens people.
More than 40 percent of Americans whose homes have any traffic noise at all classify that noise as "bothersome," according to the 2005 American Housing Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. One-third of those say the noise is so bothersome they want to move. All told, more than 100 million Americans are regularly exposed to noise levels in excess of the 55 decibels that federal agencies have deemed reasonable in background intensity.
One Dutch analysis combined the results from 43 studies that tracked chest pains, heart attacks and related problems with community noise levels. Using a statistical technique called meta-analysis, it concluded that there is "a slight increase in cardiovascular disease risk in populations exposed to air traffic and/or road traffic noise."
Even if chronic exposure to noise is unlikely to kill you, it can simmer under the surface and take a toll on your well-being.
Studies have shown that chronic night noise not only leaves you fatigued, irritable, and struggling to concentrate the next day, it also activates the stress response as you sleep. And while the number of awakenings per night may decrease as you adjust to the noise, increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing changes persist.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has claimed that the idea that people get used to noise is a myth. Even when we think we have become accustomed to noise, biological changes still take place inside us.
High levels of mechanical noise, such as that from a hospital's own air-conditioning equipment, can delay recovery in patients -- a reflection of the immune suppression that comes with an activated stress response.
Another insidious effect of noise is its cultivation of what scientists call "learned helplessness." Children given puzzles in moderately noisy classrooms are not only more likely to fail to solve them but are also more likely to surrender early, according to a Cornell University study. The implications of learned helplessness on a child's success in life can be quite powerful.
Perhaps most disturbing in these times of political and economic polarization is that noise undermines generosity.
In one study, people were less likely to help someone pick up a bundle of dropped books when the noise of a lawn mower was present. Another showed that in a noisy environment, people playing a game were more likely to see their fellow players as disagreeable or threatening. Yet another found a decrease in helpful behavior when loud "annoying music" was played.
Interestingly, helpful behavior increased when similarly loud "uplifting music" was played.
Which brings us back to the weird thing about noise: its mysterious psychological component.
As the old saying goes, good fences make good neighbors. Unfortunately, life with noisy neighbors is more complicated than that. Is the fence on the right side of the property line? Are there any overhanging branches or roots sneaking under the fence? Is there a dog barking constantly, or at odd hours behind that fence?
“Neighbors really define your quality of life,” says Emily Doskow, a lawyer and co-author of “Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise” (1991, updated 2011, Nolo). Living with a noisy neighbor can be incredibly wearing and turn a peaceful community into a battleground.
Additionally, with more people working from home today, daytime sounds that may once have gone unnoticed can create high levels of tension.
In most suburban neighborhoods, barking dogs are the worst noise offenders. Craig Mixon, a Northern California homeowner, became so bothered by barking dogs in the neighborhood that he started barkingdogs.net, a web site that offer resources for others who are dealing with the same problem.
Mixon, a master dog trainer, tried talking to neighbors who owned the offending dogs, even offering to train the dogs for them. Nothing worked.
Regulations about barking dogs or other noise from neighbors vary according to town. In some cases, they are covered by noise laws, in others by nuisance laws.
Once-friendly neighbor relationships can be torn apart by noisy dogs. In Mixon’s community, one neighbor put their dogs outside, often all day, in a lawn surrounded by an invisible fence, which offered no noise barrier when the dogs began barking. Several neighbors approached the dog owners gently to ask that something be done, to no avail.
One neighbor did call town officials to see what could be done, but was told that noise laws applied from dusk to dawn, which may work in the winter, but not so well in the summer when days are long and nights are short. And she didn’t feel comfortable complaining because the town would take complaints only from people who gave their names.
“Towns need to have better dog laws,” she said.
In some communities, animal control does not address neighbors’ disputes over barking dogs. Ordinances usually cover only licensing, what type of animals you have (no pigs or roosters, for instance), leash requirements and the like.
While power tools and machinery are allowed on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and on weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with the exception of emergencies) barking dogs usually fall under the unnecessary noise regulation in suburban/residential communities. In other words, noise that menaces the health or disturb the peace and quiet are prohibited any time of the day or night.
In some communities, fed-up neighbors are getting creative when it comes to taking matters into their own hands (legally). Barking Dog Atlas, (http://barkingdogatlas.blogspot.com/) for instance, is a website created by one fed up homeowner that invites people all over the U.S. to anonymously post a photo, video link, and the offending neighbor’s name and address
Of course, as the first step in any neighborly problem, it may help to either speak (nicely) to the neighbor or, to avoid discussing it directly, leave a pleasant note. This may seem obvious, but too many people lose their temper right away. Try to give the neighbor the benefit of the doubt, even if it seems ridiculous. Try and assume everyone wants to be as good a neighbor as you are.
The second step would be a note or call stating that the intention is to work the problem out with the neighbor directly. Heavy-handed threats of calling the police or animal control should be last options, when all else fails.
Suggesting mediation is also an option. Community mediators are available in most towns, and often the police know how to contact them.
Finally, if there is still no response from the offenders, a warning should be issued to the neighbor that you will go to small claims court or seek redress elsewhere. The trouble is, it’s often not easy to prove, or get the authorities to resolve the problem.
“Some noise laws are distance-based and some are decibel-based,” says Les Blomberg, director of the nonprofit group Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. “Ideally, noise regulations should set a clear line for neighbors — this is allowed, this isn’t.”
But often that isn’t the case.
Sometimes the best route may be a path of least resistance. A noise barrier fence or sound deadening material strategically placed in the yard or home can save a homeowner months or even years of turmoil with a noisy neighbor, provide the peace and privacy that everyone seeks in their home environment, and maintain some semblance of peace with the neighbors.
A rooster accused of waking up residents in a quaint UK village is being forced to move out after its owner was served with a noise abatement order by the local town council and threatened with court action.
The early morning alarm that comes naturally to Cockadoodle Welch has been disrupting the neighbors' sleep for months. After weighing in on more than 50 recordings of the young rooster (also known as a cockerel) crowing before 7:30 a.m. over the space of one week, council members intervened on behalf of the sleep-deprived residents by delivering an ultimatum to Cockadoodle's owner Carl Welch: the rooster, who lives with 12 hens in Welch's yard, must be relocated or Mr. Welch will find himself in court over the noisy disruption to his neighbors' peace and quiet.
The headaches began in late 2010 when Mr. Welch thought it would be nice to add chickens to his garden, since his home is in a relatively rural area where outdoor noise is not usually a problem for residents. Mr. Welch says it never occurred to him that the neighbors would take issue when he added the cockerel to the backyard flock.
“As the mornings grew lighter, one of my neighbors complained that the rooster's crowing was disturbing them in the early mornings," he said.
“I’ve done everything I can to stop him from crowing really early.
“I brought him inside and covered him up, but I have to leave for work at 7 a.m. so I have no choice but to put him outside at about 6.45 a.m.”
Mr. Welch says Cockadoodle, who has his own Facebook page, would now have to go and live with a friend in another community.
“It seems a bit ridiculous to me," Mr Welch says. "I’ve got to re-home him just because I can’t go to work any later.
“I’ve got to stop him from crowing between 6.45 a.m. and 7.30 a.m., but most people are already up and going to work at that time. I don’t even know who’s complained. I’ve asked around and people have said they’ve heard him but it’s a countryside sound so it doesn’t bother them.”
A statutory noise nuisance has been established and as such, the council is duty bound to serve an abatement notice when no sufficient soundproofing material or other noise deadening resolution has been put in place to provide peace and privacy to the neighbors. Mr. Welch has been advised that should the notice be breached, ultimately court proceedings may follow.
“We have a duty to investigate all reports of noise pollution thoroughly and take all complaints to the council seriously," said a council spokesman.
Although evicting a noisy cockerel on behalf of cranky neighbors may sound like fodder for a standup comedy routine, noise-related sleep deprivation can have serious implications; it can interfere with daytime functions that require alertness including driving, operating machinery, working, and watching over children. Ongoing sleep disruption due to noise can also lead to serious health problems including high blood pressure, impaired immune system, irritability, cognitive impairment, memory lapses or loss, anxiety and other health risks.
In many U.S. communities, keeping roosters in residential areas is discouraged due to the noise nuisance they often create. Regulations vary from one community to the next; whereas roosters may violate noise ordinances in one community, they may be in violation of livestock ordinances in another.
If legitimate noise complaints are received against roosters in residential areas, and steps are not taken to create an effective noise barrier to keep the offending wakeup call out of neighboring properties, local governing officials may request the rooster(s) to be removed from the property.