Noise pollution: The Number One Quality of Life Complaint
Photo: Tim Robbins in "Noise" courtesy of Seven Arts Pictures
Noise pollution is making us sick, nervous, distracted, unproductive, and sleep deprived. It’s even killing us. Do we pull a Henry Bean to make it stop?
If you saw the movie “Noise” you may know that Henry Bean is the real life batterer of car alarms on whose life the movie, starring Tim Robbins, was based. Bean could not stand the sound of car alarms blaring for up to four hours in his Manhattan neighborhood, and when car owners didn’t address their blaring alarms soon enough, Bean did.
“It bothers me that their cars can shout in my ear, not stop shouting, and I can’t do anything about it,” Bean said in a 2008 interview. “My pride can’t handle it. I can’t exist if I don’t fight back in some way, however pathetically or ineffectually.”
Bean spent years breaking into those cars with blaring, unattended alarms. It was during a particularly sleep-deprived night that he broke into a car whose alarm had been blaring for more than four hours outside of his apartment. By the time Bean broke the car’s window, popped the hood and disconnected the battery cable, the car had already been pummelled with eggs, beer and tomatoes.
“People inflicted their fury, but nobody did what I did,” he said.
Oh, and the car's owner called the police. Bean spent a night in jail, and thousands on his legal defense. When all was said and done, he was admonished but hardly reformed. He has admitted to taking more blaring car alarms out since his arrest, but he skims the details.
The character based on Bean in the movie “Noise” sacrificed his marriage and his Manhattan apartment in his uncontrollable need to shut down car alarms, waging a one-man war on the urban noise pollution in what began as an attempt to get some peace and quiet.
The film received good reviews, but the general public wasn’t interested. Apparently noise isn’t a big box office attraction, but the film itself did a good job of defining a pervasive form of pollution that, although it is harming us, gets little attention from most people. Studies have revealed time and again that noise can be harmful to human health, just like air and water pollution. Noise damages our hearing, interrupts our sleep, and raises our blood pressure to dangerous levels. According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year.
In New York City, noise is the number one quality-of-life complaint. Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist who studies noise, is a member of New York’s Council on the Environment, and helped rewrite the city’s noise code in recent years. It was Bronzaft’s landmark 1970s research that brought attention to the noise of elevated train tracks, which hampered the academic performance of children in nearby schools. In July 2007, the first new noise codes in New York in more than 30 years went into effect, regulating construction noise, air-conditioner noise, garbage truck grinding and even music from bars and restaurants. That’s right, taxi drivers are no longer permitted to lean on their horns except in situations of “imminent danger.”
Today, urban landscapes can be so noisy that ornithologists have discovered birds warbling at the top of their lungs to be heard. Nightingales in Berlin have been documented singing up to 14 decibels louder than their relatives in quieter surroundings, in an attempt to be heard above all the city noise Yet the cacophony of modern life is hardly confined to metropolises like New York or Cairo, Egypt, where you literally have to shout on the street to make yourself heard.
In “Noise,” the Bean character and his family head to the country for a weekend to escape the city’s noise, only to be besieged by a neighbor’s noisy leaf blower. Escaping noise is not an easy task.
Even scarier is the fact that noise affects your health, even when you sleep through it.
Scientists at Imperial College London monitored the blood pressure of 140 sleeping volunteers who lived near London’s Heathrow airport. Their research discovered that the volunteers’ blood pressure rose when a plane few overhead, even while the volunteer slept. Another study of 5,000, 45-to-70-year-olds living near airports for five years or longer found that they were at greater risk of suffering from hypertension / high blood pressure than their peers in quieter communities. In 2007, the World Health Organization estimated that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for three percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease among Europeans.
Meanwhile, the world continues to get louder. The 20th century was the loudest in the history of the world, and the past decade was the loudest decade in the history of the world, according to researchers. The question is, when – if ever – will it get quieter?