By Kim Robson
Last week I discussed light pollution and ways to mitigate it. Since they often go hand-in-hand, I’d like to address noise pollution also. The EPA’s definition of noise pollution is “unwanted or disturbing sound.” Sound becomes unwanted or disturbing when it interferes with normal life. Not being able to sleep or to have a conversation disrupts or diminishes our quality of life. Common sources of noise pollution can include vehicular traffic, aircraft, railroads, factories, construction, barking dogs, boom cars, motorcycles, jet skis, leaf blowers, stadiums, generators, and car alarms.
Until the 1970s, governments viewed excessive noise as a “nuisance” rather than an environmental problem. Just because you can’t see, taste, or smell it doesn’t mean that it can’t be just as damaging as air or water pollution. In fact, the word noise comes from the Latin word nauseas, meaning disgust or discomfort.
Studies have shown direct links between noise and health. Excessive noise can cause problems including high stress, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, annoyance, aggression, tinnitus, and lost productivity. While Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is the most common and frequently discussed health effect, research has proven that exposure to constant or high levels of noise can cause countless adverse health effects. Constant light and loud noise are often used together in torture scenarios.
The negative effects of noise on animals are tremendous. Noise can alter predator/prey interactions, can interfere with reproduction and navigation, and can contribute to permanent hearing loss. It also results in a reduction of usable habitat, which, for endangered species, may be part of the road to extinction. The deaths of certain species of beached whales have been attributed to exposure to the loud noise of military sonar. European Robins in urban environments are prone to singing at night because it is quieter at night, and their songs can be heard more clearly. Research shows that daytime noise is a stronger predictor of nocturnal singing than night-time light pollution, which also is blamed frequently. Zebra finches are less faithful to their partners when exposed to traffic noise. Behavioral changes like these could lead to profound genetic and evolutionary consequences by altering a population’s evolutionary path, sapping energies normally devoted to other activities.
Workers’ exposure to industrial noise has been a problem since the 1930s. Between occupational and non-occupational noise, there are an estimated 20 to 25 million people who may experience hearing loss because of regular exposure to noise of 75 decibels or higher. Workplace changes have included redesign of industrial equipment, shock mounting assemblies, and physical barriers in the workplace.
The EPA regulates some noise sources, including rail and motor carriers, low noise emission products, construction and transport equipment, trucks, motorcycles, and the labeling of hearing protection devices. However, they do not have any regulatory authority over noise in local communities.
Strategies for mitigating traffic noise can include installation of noise barriers, limitation of speed, limits on heavy trucks, alteration of roadway surface texture, use of controls that smooth traffic flow to reduce braking and acceleration, and better tire design. To properly apply these strategies, a computer model is critical for addressing local topography, weather, traffic operations, and proposed mitigation. Costs can be modest if these solutions are provided for in the planning stages of a highway project.
Altering flight paths and times of runway use, and the design of quieter jet engines (which was vigorously pursued in the 1970s and 1980s) has brought a noticeable reduction in noise for residential neighborhoods near airports.
Noise-cancelling headphones are an effective short-term solution. Earplugs are, in my opinion, one of man’s greatest inventions, plus they’re inexpensive and readily available. My go-to brand is Howard Leight. Their day-glo orange SuperLeight plugs are comfortable and cut out a whopping 33 decibels. A pair lives in my purse for emergencies.
Many people are not aware of their legal right to quiet, nor would they know how to register a complaint. You should contact your local government (city or county) authorities to see if there are local or state laws that might apply to your situation. Many states also run noise pollution programs. Look for resources such as the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, whose mission is to create more civilized cities and more natural rural and wilderness areas by reducing noise pollution at the source. Let’s hear it for peace and quiet (actually, we’ll just whisper it)!