The quietest war: for many Americans, noise pollution is no joke.
In 1996, the World Health Organization declared noise to be a significant health threat. Approximately 20 million Americans are exposed to noise levels that can lead to psychological and physiological damage through various deafening occupations in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, construction and forestry - and through leisure pursuits involving recreational vehicles, firearms or loud music. Health problems related to noise include not just hearing loss, but also stress, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, distraction and lowered work productivity.
Nancy Nadler, director of the Noise Center at the League for the Hard of Hearing, says, "In general, sustained exposure to noise above 85 decibels, over time, will cause permanent hearing loss and the louder the sound, the less time before hearing damage can occur. Remember though, that noise does not have to be loud to affect us. Studies have indicated that noise causes physiological changes in sleep, blood pressure and digestion."
Excessive noise is one of the leading causes of permanent hearing damage. It's estimated that over 10 million Americans currently suffer from a hearing loss at least partially attributable to a noisy environment. Signs a hearing injury has been sustained as a result of noise include tinnitus, or ringing in the ear, a feeling of "stuffiness" in the ear and muted sounds.
Peter Donnelly of the Right To Quiet Society doesn't hesitate when asked why noise is a problem. "Because it is driving people crazy" he says. "It's one of the most insidious forms of pollution. It is inescapable; it pursues us even into our homes and causes stress 24 hours a day." Government studies agree; the most frequent complaint Americans have about their neighborhoods is not crime, but noise.
Donnelly adds, "On a personal level, we all need to take acoustic responsibility. I think it's an amazing irony that for the sake of keeping a tidy and presentable front yard, a homeowner will take out a leaf blower that shatters the peace of the entire neighborhood. Noise is garbage, and we should be as careful about where we put it as we are about where we throw our candy wrappers - a lot more careful in fact, because noise is a lot more hurtful than litter."
Noise affects more than our health and quality of life; it even influences social behavior and cognitive development. In 1997, a Cornell University study found that children exposed to frequent airplane noise don't learn to read as well as other children. Excessive background noise caused the children to tune out human voices and interfered with their language acquisition. The psychologists who conducted the study speculated that as a result of noise pollution, parents and teachers were also less willing to speak or read aloud.
While many anti-noise groups mainly focus on health and psychological issues, the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) focuses on civil liberties. Les Blomberg, NPC coordinator, says, "Noise is an affliction suffered by people who have no part in creating it. Like second-hand smoke, second-hand noise is a major sovereignty issue. The air into which noise is emitted is a 'commons,' a public good or resource that nobody owns." The NPC web site (www.nonoise.org) has collected thousands of news stories of lawsuits and community battles over noise. It also helps people deliver testimony and comments to commissions, zoning boards and city councils. According to Blomberg, "You don't need to be an expert to know that noise has negative effects. What is lacking is the ability of local communities and groups to take on the big polluters with vested interests in continuing to pollute, whether they be a local quarry or the airline industry."
In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act, which put the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in charge of the issue. Federal noise standards for businesses, industries and communities were established along with some beginning research into the effects of excessive noise. When the Noise Abatement and Control office was defunded in 1982, hundreds of similar state and local programs died along with it.
So what can be done about excessive noise? Eric Greenspoon, vice president of Citizen's Coalition Against Noise, says solutions don't have to be complicated or expensive. "Most neighborhood noise problems could easily be solved if people would simply be more considerate of their fellow neighbors and use adequate sound insulation in their homes." Greenspoon recommends that people ask for quieter products, avoid using noisy power tools (snow and leaf blowers are a particular irritant), ask police to enforce laws against unmuffled motor vehicles, use adequate hearing protection when exposed to noise, and join an anti-noise group. He also hopes for government sound level labeling standards on new products.
Meanwhile, the Quiet Communities Act, HR 536, is slowly making its way through Congress. It would reestablish the EPA'S Noise Control office, stimulate noise research and education, and develop federal standards for noise emissions. But some activists, like Les Blomberg, criticize the bill, which budgets $5 million a year for the program, as "exceedingly weak and underfunded. It would just create a huge bureaucracy." CONTACT: Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, PO Box 1137, Montpelier, VT 05601-1137/(888)200-8332; Right To Quiet Society, No. 359, 1985 Wallace Street, Vancouver BC V6R 4H4, Canada/(604)222-0207; League for the Hard of Hearing's Noise Center, 71 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10010-4162/(212) 741- 7650.