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CAOHC Newsletter: UPDATE

Noise Is All Around

by Les Blomberg
Executive Director, Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC)

Editor’s Note: As professionals involved in occupational hearing conservation programs our focus is often on noise that is hazardous to hearing, especially noise in the workplace. But noise is everywhere and as such it can have an even broader impact on our lives. Your awareness of these issues will enrich your understanding of the noise problem and perhaps provide you additional ideas and insight to assist in your efforts to educate and motivate your noise-exposed workforce.

The tally sheet on environmental noise in our lives does not look promising. Those noises that we are all too familiar with have increased dramatically since 1960: Car traffic is up 162 percent, airline traffic up 438 percent, truck traffic up 483 percent, and air cargo traffic up 2,156 percent.

Added to this are the new noises that only a technological society can boast: thrillcraft (jet skis), leaf blowers, weed whackers, boom boxes, and car alarms not to mention the increasing decibel level of movie trailers that announce coming attractions
in theaters.

And the good news? Most hotel doormen don’t use whistles anymore.

Noise comes from the Latin word nausea, originally meaning seasickness. Which is not surprising, because noise makes us sick. Noise can raise blood pressure, change blood chemistry, and make us anxious, tired, and distracted. In addition, noise also affects whole communities. Noise diminishes our sense of civility, numbs compassion, and breeds aggression and hostility.

Noise disturbs our sense of place. Noise ranks higher than crime, traffic, and public services as a cause of popular dissatisfaction in neighborhoods, according to the U.S. Census. It is one of the reasons people continue to flock to suburbs-in search of peace and quiet. There we huddle among the setbacks, cul-de-sacs, sound walls, and berms erected to deaden sound. These designs are not always successful. What they are successful at, however, is further isolating neighbor from neighbor.

Noise is rapidly becoming our most pervasive pollutant. Approximately 138 million Americans live in areas noisier than the EPA recommends. Moreover, the number of places where we can find peace is diminishing. Today, because of airplane and helicopter overflights, natural quiet is preserved in only seven percent of the Grand Canyon National park - and nowhere in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. In Yellowstone National Park the most distinctive wintertime sound is not the exploding of geysers or the bugling of elks, but the drone of 2,000 snowmobiles.

To some, noise is simply the price we pay for living in a modern, industrialized economy. But it doesn’t have to be. Noise standards in Europe are significantly lower than in the
United States, which no longer updates, writes, or enforces most federal
noise regulations. The EPA office of Noise Abatement and Control was shut down by Ronald Reagan nearly two decades ago.

Laws, technology, politeness, and concern for one’s neighbors could solve most noise problems. Instead of replacing motorcycle mufflers with "straight pipes" to make them louder we should be replacing them with better mufflers to make them quieter. Mufflers do not even come as standard equipment on many small aircraft and most small watercraft. Lawn equipment need not be so loud as to pose a hearing threat to the operator and a nuisance to neighbors. Ultimately, environmental noise stems from a lack of manners and a breach of civility. Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves; bad neighbors do not.

As noise becomes increasingly pervasive, communities are starting to fight back. They are recognizing that the outdoors is a public commons and that although everyone is entitled to its use, we should strive to design rules to allow for as many possible uses simultaneously and limit those that degrade others’ use of the outdoors. Making as much noise as one wants is neither a human right nor a property right. We can exercise our property rights only to the extent that we do not diminish the rights of others. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Your right to make noise ends at my ear. Friends of quiet liken their battle to the 25-year-old one against secondhand smoke. Over almost three decades it has become routine for states and cities to decide that your right to smoke ends at the air I breathe.

Communities are strengthening their ordinances and increasing enforcement. Citations are now common in many major cities for "boom cars" (described by Time Magazine as rock concerts on wheels) that are audible more than 50 feet from a vehicle. And outside of urban areas, thrillcraft are being banned from parks, lakes, and waterways across the country. "Business," according to Eric Zwerling, Director of the Rutgers Noise Technical Assistance Center, "is booming." Zwerling is busy traveling the country helping cities write better noise ordinances. In yet another sign of the success of quiet preservationists, ECHO, the leaf blower manufacturer, has had to hire someone to fight municipal leaf blower bans.

The effort to quiet neighborhoods, however, is only beginning. While communities have the right to regulate late-night parties or muffler-less motorcycles, they still do not have the right to regulate low-flying or late-night aircraft or early-morning trains, even if these generate noise many times louder than a neighbor’s stereo. When it comes to transportation, mobility still takes precedence over community.

That too is beginning to change. People are realizing that we are creating acoustical slums out of our inner cities. And after 50 years of fleeing the cities for the peace of the suburbs, many are realizing that they have brought the noise with them. With fewer places to flee, there is renewed interest in improving the quality of life where we live now. But that means quieting motorcycles, cars, trucks, planes, trains, and the host of modern conveniences that were meant to make our lives "better" but have had the unintended consequence of diminishing our overall quality of life.

The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) is leading the effort to quiet our neighborhoods. The mission of NPC is to create more livable cities and more natural rural and wilderness areas by reducing noise at the source. The primary resource of NPC is a 50 megabyte Online Library (www.nonoise.org) used by 400 people each day. Within the library are articles about noise and its effects, a law library containing local, state, and federal regulations, and resources for quieting specific noise sources. For more information, you can contact NPC toll free at (888) 200-8332.