If the New York chorus of shrill sirens, grating drills and incessant loud honks is bothering you, you’re not alone. Noise frustrations are actually the most frequent complaint to 311. Too often it seems that the voices of anti-noise activists are left unheard in a din of other, louder causes.
But wait, shhh… do you hear that? Someone has finally decided to listen.
One ardent activist against noise is NYU professor Dr. Tae Hong Park, who’s designed innovative solutions to the problem. Composer, performer, and music technologist, Park helped produce NY’s first Noise Gate Festival in September.
More voices are speaking to the problem, too. George Prochnik’s landmark book In Pursuit of Silence (2010) provides readers with history, context, and research on how excessive noise has come to pervade and poison urban life.
It extends beyond just a quality of life issue. Loud sounds can disturb, destroy, and even kill. Noise is noxious not just to humans but to other species; it disturbs our planet’s delicate eco-balance. In the push for a sustainable planet, the fight against noise pollution is finally taking center stage.
Frightening Facts: Health Risks
Studies have linked noise to many health problems, from insomnia to high blood pressure. The loudest sources are road and air traffic, construction and power generators. In fact, in 2008, the World Health Organization reported the overall risk to our health from road traffic noise is 40 percent higher than that from air pollution.
Children: Cognitive Development
Researchers say excessive noise has a negative impact on the psychological and cognitive development of children.
- A 1975 study found children in classrooms facing railroad tracks with distracting loud noises were a year behind in reading ability;
- Researchers found children raised in noisy environments have dramatically slower capacities to process language.
- Noise is disorienting for babies. Excessive noise causes the same response in babies as being dropped. The baby feels like it’s lost its anchor and is falling.
According to the EPA, prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 dBA – the equivalent volume of a lawnmower – can permanently impair hearing.
Moreover, a 2008 study from John Hopkins University reports that hearing loss in the US is approaching epidemic proportions… One in three Americans now suffers some degree of hearing impairment.
Noise triggers a “fight or flight” response, increasing blood pressure, heart rate, constricting blood vessels and releasing stress hormones. Over long periods of exposure, noise can cause changes in blood chemistry, high blood pressure, hardening of blood vessels, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Some experts say 45,000 fatal heart attacks per year may be attributable to noise.
Medical researchers, (Gomes and Hagler, Southern Medical Journal, 2003) found environmental noise is a major cause of disturbed sleep. It is responsible for difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings, waking too early, and alteration in sleep stages and depth, especially reduction in REM sleep.
When sleep disruption becomes chronic, the results are mood changes, decreased cognitive performance, and other long-term effects on health and well-being.
Excessive noise increases stress and induces aggressive behavior.
A growing body of research ties autism to excessive acoustical stimulation.
The Market for Noise
Incessant noise doesn’t end outdoors. Indoors, stores and restaurants are cranking up the volume.
George Prochnik argues that this trend is indirectly driven by marketing executives who sold clients on the idea that music blasted at deafening levels increases awareness of the “brand.” Loud music also incites overstimulation and sexual arousal.
Retailers find turning up the volume keeps people moving through the store. Restaurateurs deliberately crank up the sound to turn tables by making you leave faster.
Such manipulations have an even darker side. Hitler’s ability to rouse crowds has been attributed to the hypnotic effect he had on listeners because of the pitch and high volume of his voice.
Noise has also been an instrument of torture. US interrogators turned the volume up on songs by rock band Metallica to torture Iraqi prisoners.
Faltering Legislative Efforts
Efforts to control noise pollution are not new. As early as 1906, Julia Rice, who founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, and other activists have periodically rallied for the cause. But until recently, their efforts have quickly been forgotten.
Efforts to change things are complicated by the fact that some cities have less of a problem. According to Dr. Park, this is not a matter of law; city sounds reflect the society’s culture and personality.
Europe has made more progress. In 2002, the European Union passed the European Noise Directive, which established a framework for reducing noise across Europe that will be the dominant policy road map for years to come. A central requirement is that all EU members create noise maps.
In New York, public outcry has grown and has lead to advocacy groups like Queens Quiet Skies.
Dr. Park, following in the footsteps of European initiatives, developed Citygram to document and map urban “soundscapes.” Funded by Google, and in partnership with CalArts, Citygram will measure sonic qualities such as volume and brightness and represent them visually on a map. The most obvious use would be monitoring noise pollution.
The September Inaugural Noise Gate festival, sponsored by NYU, the UN Global Arts Initiative and others, hopes to increase awareness of noise pollution. One highlight was a Carnegie Hall concert: Music for a Sustainable Planet.
They also screened award-winning documentary, Sonic Sea, which chronicles the devastating impact of military and industrial noise on whales and other marine life. Excessive noise from oil drills caused dramatic changes in the ocean’s delicate acoustic habitat. Constant loud noise threatened the ability of whales and other sea animals to communicate and survive. The film ends with cautionary words from scientists: “We’re putting our oceans at risk. If you put our oceans at risk, you put all of us at risk.”