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Quiet, Please

On the Consequences of a Society Living Out Loud

Chuck Shacochis
Chuck Shacochis

By Andrew Reiner | Posted 6/13/2001

Summer is the most anxious time of year for me. As the temperature rises and the days extend, I dread opening my window. Not because of the heat and fabled Baltimore humidity that attack unprotected pores. Not because of the special summer smell of garbage in the street. It's the aural trash that makes me wince this time of year.

On any given summer afternoon or evening, my otherwise quiet Northeast Baltimore neighborhood is a landfill of sounds, from the annoying (say, weed whackers) to the unnerving (car alarms) to that noise de resistance, the Harley-Davidson that rattles my windows every day.

I know that I am sensitive, probably more so than most, to loud sounds. I plug my ears when a fire truck roars by in full siren. I fantasize about living in a retirement community whenever the screaming of my neighbors' kids jars me from a nap. Call me a wimp, call me an old man if you like, but I don't want to be one of the people targeted in an advertisement I saw recently about disposable hearing aids for aging boomers who blew out their eardrums at rock shows.

I don't know why the ad's warning is limited to rock concerts. Everyday life is deafening enough. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 138 million Americans are exposed daily to noise levels that are at the very least annoying and disruptive, and 87 percent of city dwellers are exposed to levels that are considered harmful. The League for the Hard of Hearing's Noise Center recently completed a 20-year study that found that hearing loss among seniors aged 60 to 89 has worsened in the past decade.

There are, of course, many culprits for such acoustic damage--lawn mowers, to take just one seasonally ubiquitous example. (According to the EPA, you shouldn't mow more than 45 minutes without taking a break from the racket.) But one of the worst offenders is something much larger and less tangible, something we cannot touch or hear: our American identity.

Still itching to light out for new territory even as that commodity is in increasingly short supply, we clog the skies with airborne junkets and ecotours to Third World countries, or take weekend excursions on overbooked flights that delude us into believing that because we are traveling great distances we are still pioneers blazing trails. Ever more vigilant in our penchant for the peripatetic and our search for new thrills, we infest our national parks and waterways with ear-splitting snowmobiles and personal watercraft. We move farther and farther from traffic-choked cities and suburbs, seeking greener, quieter, pastures, but bring along our leaf blowers and weed whackers and insistence on the conveniences we had back in the metroplex. Wider roads and big-box retailers shadow these nouveau-rural transplants, shattering what tranquility is left.

The fallout from this noise isn't just annoyance; according to the World Health Organization, it presents a significant health threat. Many people who live near airports, to cite probably the loudest and most quotidian of these threats, are deprived of sleep each night, which can affect health, mood, and job performance. But you don't have to live near an airport to feel the burden of excessive noise. Many forms of loud noise can alter motor and cognitive abilities and trigger changes in the functioning of glands, the heart, the stomach, and intestines, according to a 1991 report by Alice Suter, a leading researcher and consultant on hearing preservation and noise control who formerly helped shape national policy on the issue with the EPA and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, excessive noise also can raise stress levels and blood pressure (which explains why some anti-stress drugs are tested by how the subject responds to loud noise). I have experienced this firsthand. Whenever I am caught off-guard by a truck's horn or a fire engine's siren, I don't merely jump; a surge I can only describe as the fight-or-flight response floods over me, and it's all I can do to keep my composure. The worst part of this is that it leaves you feeling overwhelmed and victimized by something completely out of your control.

If this is how excessive sound levels can unhinge some adults, imagine what they do to children, whose eardrums are less battle- hardened. A study reported in last March's Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that children who live in noisier neighborhoods experience greater levels of stress than children in quieter settings. When exposed to chronic loud noises such as airplanes flying overhead, many children lost motivation in the classroom. According to the Journal article, when children are continuously exposed to "aversive stimuli" that they cannot control while trying to learn, the education process begins to feel futile. "Several studies have shown that both acute and chronic high-intensity noise are capable of inducing helplessness," the researchers stated.

This finding helps explain why Arline Bronzaft made such a big bang back in 1975. In what is now hailed as a groundbreaking study, the psychologist discovered that students in a New York City elementary school whose classroom faced an elevated train's tracks scored much more poorly on reading achievement tests than did their counterparts in quieter parts of the building. Students in second and third grades who were regularly exposed to noise from the el--measured at 89 decibels, not much louder than most lawn mowers--were reading as much as three months behind peers whose classrooms were farther from the trains. The disparity for fifth- and sixth-grade students was as much as a year. Although Bronzaft's study didn't cover older students, she told the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 1978 that excessive classroom noise "might be more detrimental to learning in the upper grades" because the work is more abstract and analytical and requires deeper concentration and listening, which are compromised by noise. In later studies she found a similar link between children's reading scores and where they lived in relation to busy roads or expressways. She found that children who lived in the lower floors of an apartment building tested worse than those living a few flights higher.

Further research posits links between noise exposure and everyday behavior. Suter, in a comprehensive review of research in the field, cited studies that showed, among other things, that subjects exposed consistently to acoustic levels equivalent to a clock's alarm were less willing to be courteous to others who needed a hand, and that bosses who'd been exposed to similar levels of noise recommended lower salaries for employees. Sound, it seems, can affect not only our sense of civility but our sense of power.

Exposure to sound doesn't just make managers freer in exerting their authority; sound itself can be an instrument of power. Sure, bass-rattling boom cars and Harley hogs that send sound to our brains at levels exceeding 100 decibels are cries for attention--the audio corollary to the glut of tell-all talk shows and "reality" programs in which people set new standards for self-abasement in exchange for a precious few minutes on the air. But these aural assaults are about more than just getting the noisemaker noticed; they're a kind of drive-by bullying--a way of brutalizing our soundscape, of anonymously flipping off the powers that be. (Why else would someone spend tens of thousands of dollars on a Harley and then replace its muffler with a straight pipe that amplifies the sound of exhaust?) It's the same mind-set as the guy who, when asked by neighbors to kindly remove the RV from his driveway because it's lowering property values, replaces it with a wheel-less I-Roc on cinder blocks.

But noise pollution cuts both ways on the socioeconomic scale. The same people complaining about that RV could care less if their cell phones ring endlessly in places such as commuter trains and restaurants, making fellow passengers and diners a captive audience forced to listen to conversations that ruin solitude.

"It boils down to a sovereignty issue," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a Vermont-based nonprofit working nationally on noise issues. "It's a matter of who owns the air. Who has a right to pollute it." Blomberg likens such sonic intrusions to secondhand smoke--the people blowing the noise in our direction aren't nearly as annoyed by it as we are.

The comparison is also politically instructive. On a philosophical level, debate over noise pollution, like that over secondhand smoke, often comes down to the classic liberal-conservative dichotomy of group considerations vs. individual rights. (The soundscape is like a village green, and the needs of all those who use it must be taken into account; I pay taxes and I can make any sound I want.) In general, however, Blomberg says noise pollution is a largely nonpartisan issue, one that cuts across the usual political lines. Whether you swing from the left or the right, when you're annoyed by a neighbor's loud air conditioner, you want the noise to stop.

But having a broadly inclusive appeal doesn't make noise pollution an issue with much political clout. One reason is inherent in the problem. Most people who complain about the noises keeping them awake at night or interrupting their solitude by day live near noisy restaurants or bars or busy airports. And a group of bleary-eyed homeowners is rarely a match, politically speaking, for a thriving business or a hub of global economic expansion. Like environmental activists fighting to get large industries to curb noxious emissions, noise activists might win a battle here or there, but the war is fought according to big business' blueprints.

Another part of the problem is that the noise-activist community is a nascent one. Blomberg's organization, for instance, only came onto the scene five years ago. Before the mid-1990s, there was little in the way of anti-noise pollution activism or legislation, and there has been no formal federal role on the issue since 1982, when President Reagan slammed shut the doors of the federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control as a budget-cutting maneuver.

Today, Blomberg says, only about a dozen states have statewide standards for acceptable noise levels. Maryland regulations set the limit in residential areas at 65 decibels during the day (the equivalent of an air conditioner heard from a distance of 50 feet) and 55 at night. (The state standards are a baseline; local governments are allowed to set more stringent noise ordinances.) Such regulations are a step toward recognizing that a problem exists, but they are rarely enforced. How often do you see the police, often the arbiters in neighborhood noise disputes, dashing off citations for neighbors who play their stereos so loud they make our ears bleed?

But the outcry against noise is getting louder, and those raising their voices on the issue are winning some concessions. Amtrak has opened a "quiet car" on its Washington-New York trains on which cell phones cannot be used. Park rangers on the Missouri River and in Maine's Acadia National Park have banned personal watercraft, the popular vehicles that are, as one noise activist put it, turning our waterways into the New Jersey Turnpike. And plans are being made to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks by winter 2003-'04.

Hope for winning further such victories seems to lie, at least for now, in the kind of creative civil disobedience practiced by Blomberg and his allies. When city council members in his hometown of Montpelier, Vt., turned a deaf ear to complaints about street sweepers that were rousing residents from sound sleep, he recorded the machines and threatened to play the tape outside lawmakers' homes at 4 a.m. Not long after, the city stopped running street sweepers at night.

It's ironic that noise has become so intrinsic to our world that being heard on the issue requires creating even more noise. The more we have to play by the noisemakers' rules, the more we lose sight, or sound, of the value of quiet. Silence can be as fulfilling as any sensation, as breathtaking as canoeing on a moonlit lake or seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Quiet gives us a chance to think, to contemplate, to be with ourselves--states of consciousness we cannot reach when deluged with the constant acoustic assaults on our increasingly smaller, noisier world. There is a genuine, tangible benefit to reclaiming our peace of mind.

Despairing noise activists might take some heart from the long-term changes in our environmental consciousness over the past few decades. Just as littering has become not just illegal but socially unacceptable behavior, perhaps, over the long haul, we can prevent our soundscape from being littered by individuals who infringe on the rights of many. As the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse's motto proclaims, "Good Neighbors Keep Their Noise to Themselves."

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