Because of the lack of attention paid to noise pollution – another Earth Day just passed without a mention of it – most people suffer in silence, not wanting to have a problem with the people behind the source of the noise, or simply believing complaining does no good. Some noise can be troubling to one person and not bother another at all. Such subjectivity over what noise is problematic can add another obstacle to finding a workable resolution. Yet studies show that people consistently rank noise as an important quality of life issue. When noise levels are consistently high, humans suffer from stress and stress-related illness.
Perhaps the greatest concern now is that over time, as noise pollution becomes more common in residential communities, everyone’s expectations of how quiet their neighborhood should be will decrease. People will complain less, and just try to live with it—to the detriment of their quality of life, health, and neighborhood.
Perhaps because I come from a large family, as an adult I have always appreciated peace and quiet wherever I can get it. In recent years, when I choose places to spend my vacations I seek quiet surroundings more often than not; I used to head straight for New York, Paris, Madrid – now I seek the quietest beach or most isolated corner I can afford to get to. I have developed tinnitus, which is more common than it should be, although I can’t tell you when – my ears had been ringing for years before I actually took note of it. Today, one in three people I ask tell me they have tinnitus, and have had it for years.
Since writing about the effects of noise on humans, wildlife, and even plant life (noise kills trees!) I have learned a lot about the effects of noise in different areas of the world. India, for instance, contains the world’s noisiest city – Mumbai – and the noise related health problems of Mumbai residents are bordering catastrophic. To its credit, the Indian government is beginning to enforce some of the strict noise ordinances recently put in place, but India’s culture is a noisy one. It will take years of education and enforcement to undo generations of traditions and lifestyles in which noise is a common part of the fabric.
Sound abatement technology keeps improving, and some industries are beginning to embrace it – often due either to pressure from government or irritated neighbors. But 21st century lifestyles have incorporated new and growing noise control challenges that more people have to identify and address.
When the hazards of second hand cigarette smoke first became an issue, many people scoffed, but eventually everyone listened and people either learned to isolate their smoking from others, or they quit. Taking control of noise pollution is going to require the same style of self awareness and self-discipline – wearing headphones when you want to blast the music (although you’ll still be hammering your own hearing); finding an alternative to the boom car for public coolness; placing noise abatement solutions around noisy HVAC units, pool pumps, and generators. Mowing grass and using power tools when your neighbors are not trying to sleep or sit down to dinner.
There are other sounds over which we have no control – emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters, commercial aircrafts, industrial vehicles, industrial machinery, and – oh yes the neighbor’s barking dog.
It is not realistic to think we can completely control noise, nor is it realistic to believe that local police should be interventionists when the neighbor’s noise levels are keeping us awake. People need to be educated about the effects of noise pollution on everyone’s life and health, and from there, take action. No more passive acceptance of noise pollution in our neighborhoods because much of it can be curtailed with simple common sense and courtesy. Special noise enforcement units should be set up separately from law enforcement, staffed with people trained in acoustics and sound measuring, who work full time at controlling noise pollution.