Noise—What You Can Do About It
AT THE end of a tiring day, you drop into a deep sleep. Suddenly, you are dragged back to consciousness by the barking of neighborhood dogs. You turn over in your bed and hope that the irritating noise will soon cease. But it persists. Over and over again, the dogs yap away. Annoyed, frustrated by sleeplessness, and now wide awake, you wonder how your neighbors can put up with such a racket.
People vary greatly in the way they tolerate noise. Airport employees who live near a runway are much less disturbed by aircraft noise than those whose work is unrelated to planes. The housewife who uses an electric food processor tolerates its noise far better than the person in the next room who is trying to read a book or watch TV.
What Is Noise Pollution?
Countries vary in the way they define noise pollution. In Mexico, noise is “any undesirable sound that is a nuisance or is harmful to persons.” New Zealand considers noise as excessive when it is “of such nature as to unreasonably interfere with the peace, comfort and convenience of any person.”
Two famous scientists, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, are closely associated with the measurement of sound. Bels, or more commonly decibels (one tenth of a bel), measure relative loudness, whereas hertz measure the pitch, or frequency, of a sound. When noise is measured, reports generally refer to the decibel level of the sound.a
But who determines how much disturbance a sound causes? You, the hearer! “For nuisance-value, the human ear remains the best detector,” notes The Independent of London.
The Effects of Noise
Since the ear is the “best detector” of noise, it is obviously the organ most likely to suffer harm from it. Damage to the sensitive nerve cells of your inner ear can cause permanent loss of hearing. People vary in their response to loud sounds, it is true. But repeated exposure to sounds above 80 to 90 decibels can lead to gradual loss of hearing. Indeed, the higher the noise levels are, the less time you can spend daily in that environment before your hearing suffers damage.
New Scientist magazine reports that many personal stereos sold in France have a maximum output of 113 decibels. Citing one study, it noted that “rock music played at full blast for one hour on personal compact disc players surpassed 100 decibels most of the time and reached peaks of around 127 decibels.” Even more serious is the effect of noise produced during live concerts. One investigator found people huddled near loudspeaker stacks in an unconscious stupor. “My vision was blurring, body cavities resonating with the bass beat,” he relates, “and the noise was painful to my ears.”
What effects can noise have on you? One authority states: “Constant noises of moderate to high levels cause stress, fatigue, and irritability.” “Being tormented by noise not only takes the joy out of life, it can wear a person down physically and emotionally,” notes Professor Gerald Fleischer, of the University of Giessen, Germany. When noise comes on top of other stressful conditions, according to Professor Makis Tsapogas, it can provoke depression as well as organic diseases.
Prolonged exposure to noise can affect your personality. When British government researchers asked victims of noise pollution how they felt about those responsible, they spoke of hatred, revenge, and even murder. On the other hand, noisemakers frequently become aggressive when they are the target of repeated complaints. “Noise lessens people’s altruism and creates aggression and hostility,” claims one antinoise campaigner.
Most who have suffered from noise pollution recognize a gradual wearing down of their resistance to the disturbance. They echo the view of one woman whose noisy neighbors constantly played loud music: “When you are forced to listen to something you don’t want to, it wears you down. . . . Even when the noise stopped, we were waiting for it to start again.”
Is there no way, then, to deal with noise pollution?
What You Can Do
With noise so all-pervasive, many people simply do not realize when they are causing a disturbance to others. If they knew, some would no doubt cease the offending activity. It is for this reason that a friendly approach to a noisy neighbor can work. One person became angry over his neighbors’ official complaints that he was noisy. He said: “I would have assumed that they would have come round to see me face-to-face if they were upset with the noise.” A mother who organized a party for some young children expressed astonishment when confronted by an official investigating a noise complaint. “I wish those who made the complaints had knocked on my door and told me if they were unhappy,” she observed. Little wonder, then, that one British environmental health officer was amazed to discover that 80 percent of those complaining about domestic noise have never asked their neighbors to quiet down.
People’s reticence to speak with noisy neighbors indicates a lack of mutual respect. ‘If I want to play my music, I can. It’s my right!’ is the response they expect and frequently get. They are afraid that a kindly suggestion to adjust the volume might lead to confrontation as the noisy neighbor labels their complaint impertinent. What a sad reflection this is on present-day society! How like the Biblical statement that in these “critical times hard to deal with,” people in general would be ‘lovers of themselves, haughty, fierce, and headstrong’!—2 Timothy 3:1-4.
Much depends on the approach the victim takes. Woman’s Weekly magazine offered the following scenario of how to resolve a tense situation after an aggressive complaint that backfired: “A warm and very human, ‘Look, I’m sorry—I blew my top but I get so tired when I can’t sleep’ will probably be all it takes to conciliate [defensive neighbors].” Perhaps they will gladly move their amplifying equipment away from the adjoining wall and lower the volume somewhat.
Realistically, it is worth your while to preserve good relations with your neighbors. Some local government authorities offer a mediation service to reconcile opposing neighbors. In view of the strong feelings official complaints provoke, calling in an enforcement agent should be viewed as “an absolute last resort.”
If you anticipate moving to a new dwelling, you will find it wise to check on possible sources of noise disturbance before you finalize contracts. Real-estate brokers recommend that you visit your prospective home at different times of the day to check on noise. You could ask neighbors for their observations. Should you encounter problems after moving into your new residence, try to resolve them in a neighborly way. Litigation generally encourages animosity.
But what if you live in a noisy neighborhood and you have no means of moving elsewhere? Are you condemned to suffer indefinitely? Not necessarily.
How to Achieve Noise Protection
Take a look at what you can do to insulate your home from outside noise. Check the walls and floors to see whether there are any holes that can be filled in. Note especially where electric sockets are located. Are they secure?
Noise frequently enters a home through doors and windows. Affixing a second layer of glass to windows (double glazing) can help lessen the noise. Even adding a thin foam strip to your doorframe will ensure that the door fits snugly. Perhaps building a porch and installing a second door will protect your living areas from disturbing traffic noise.
Although traffic noise is growing at an alarming pace, automakers are constantly developing new materials and methods to lower sound levels inside your vehicle. Quieter tires on your auto also help. In many countries experiments with different types of road surfaces have produced such products as “whisper concrete,” where some of the aggregate is left exposed and consequently there is only random tire contact. Use of this surface reportedly reduces noise levels by as much as two decibels for light vehicles and one decibel for heavy trucks. Although this may not appear to be significant, a drop of three decibels on the average is equivalent to decreasing the noise from traffic by half!
Road builders now design highways that are hidden by barriers or banks of earth, thus effectively reducing noise. Even where there is no room for this, specially designed fences, such as one in east London made of woven willow shoots and evergreen plants, shield residents near the highway from unwanted noise.
Masking distracting sounds with what is called white noise—for example, static or rushing air—can be useful in some environments, such as offices.b In Japan silent pianos have come on the market. Instead of striking the string, the hammer activates an electronic circuit that produces the note in the earphones of the player.
Scientists have already spent long hours researching the production of what they call antinoise. Basically, this involves using another source of sound to produce vibrations that cancel out the effects of noise. Of course, this involves extra equipment and more expense and does not really remove the source of the problem. “Until people start regarding noise as sonic litter,” observes U.S.News & World Report, “anti-noise may be the only way to get a moment of silence.” Possibly so, but is silence the antidote to noise pollution?
Is there really any prospect of peace and quiet for your home and your neighborhood? Our next article offers a real hope.
a Noise levels are generally determined by using a meter that measures sound in decibels. Since the ear hears some frequencies more acutely than others, the meter is designed to respond similarly.
b Just as white light is a mixture of all the frequencies in the light spectrum, white noise is sound that contains all the frequencies within the audible range, at approximately equal levels of loudness.
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How You Can Avoid Being a Noisy Neighbor
● Consider your neighbors when you do something noisy, and inform them beforehand.
● Cooperate when asked by a neighbor to reduce noise.
● Realize that your pleasure should not lead to your neighbors’ distress.
● Remember that noise and vibration transmit easily through halls and floors.
● Place noisy household equipment on padding.
● Make sure that someone can be called to deal with false alarms from house and car.
● Don’t carry out noisy work or use noisy domestic appliances late at night.
● Don’t play music at a level that annoys your neighbors.
● Don’t leave dogs alone for long periods.
● Don’t allow children to jump on the floor and thus disturb people below.
● Don’t sound car horns, slam doors, or rev engines at night.
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Noise and You
“Noise is the most widespread industrial hazard in Britain today,” notes The Times, “and deafness its common consequence.” Some occupational-health studies indicate that noise above 85 decibels can harm a fetus. The baby’s hearing is damaged, and the baby may have hormonal disturbances as well as birth defects.
Exposure to loud noise constricts blood vessels and decreases the flow of blood to your organs. In turn, your body reacts by producing hormones that raise blood pressure and increase your heartbeat, sometimes leading to palpitations or even angina.
When noise disrupts your routine, other problems can occur. Disturbed sleep can affect your daytime reactions. Noise may not alter the overall speed at which you work, but it can have a bearing on the number of errors you make.
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Protection at Work
If you find noise at work a problem, consider wearing some kind of ear protection.* Earmuffs fit around your head like headphones and are generally effective where noise levels are high. They have the advantage that you can still hear verbal messages and machine warning signals, although they may make it difficult for you to pinpoint where the sound comes from. Earplugs need to be the right size for you and are unsuitable if you have an ear disease or irritation of the ear canal.
Good machine maintenance can reduce vibrations. Placing the equipment on rubber mounts will serve to reduce noise pollution, as will the screening of noisy machinery.
*Legislation in many countries requires that employers make sure that their workers wear adequate hearing protection.
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How can you protect yourself from noise produced by a mobile society?