June 25, 2008

Stop the noise!

From Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon, Jun. 25, 2008:

Modern cities can be so noisy that ornithologists have found birds warbling at the top of their lungs to be heard. Nightingales in Berlin have been documented singing up to 14 decibels louder than their counterparts in woody environs, in an attempt to make their songs audible above all the background noise. Yet the cacophony of modern life is hardly confined to metropolises like New York or Cairo, Egypt, where you literally have to shout on the street to make yourself heard.

In [the movie] "Noise," Bean's protagonist and his family escape to the country for the weekend. Their getaway is besieged by a neighbor's farting leaf blower. Getting away from it all just isn't that easy.

"For 50 years, if people didn't like noise, and they had money, the solution has been: Move to the suburbs. Now we've made our suburbs noisy. They're no longer quiet refuges," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. "We got our half-acre lots, and now we have our weed whacker, our leaf blower, our hedge trimmer, our riding lawn mower, and then we hop in our car and drive on four- and six-lane highways past thousands of other suburbs to our place of work, noise-polluting every place we pass."

But you don't have to be an anti-noise crusader to suffer physical effects from noise, even if you're sleeping right through it. Scientists at Imperial College London monitored the blood pressure of 140 sleeping volunteers who lived near London's Heathrow airport. They discovered that subjects' blood pressure rose when a plane few overhead even when the subjects remained asleep. A study of 5,000 45-to-70-year-olds living near airports for at least five years found that they were at greater risk of suffering from hypertension, aka high blood pressure, than their counterparts in quieter realms. People with high blood pressure have an increased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and dementia. In 2007, WHO estimated that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for 3 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease among Europeans.

Not only can too much loud noise damage your hearing, or disrupt your sleep, it can literally suck the life out of you thanks to the human body's fight-or-flight response. "The human auditory system is designed to serve as a means of warning against dangers in the environment," explains Louis Hagler, a retired internal medicine specialist in Oakland, Calif. "Noise above a certain level is perceived by the nervous system as a threat." The body responds to that threat with an outpouring of epinephrine and cortisol, the so-called stress hormones. "Your blood pressure goes up, your pulse rate goes up, there is a sudden outpouring of sugar into the bloodstream so the body is prepared to meet whatever threat there is in the environment."

If exposures are intermittent or rare, the body has the chance to return to normal. But if the exposure is unrelenting, the body doesn't have a chance to calm down, and blood pressure and heart rate may remain elevated, Hagler explains. That's why what seems like a mere annoyance can actually have long-term health effects. "There is no question that people who live near a busy roadway are experiencing effects on their blood pressure," says Hagler.

... "There is no evidence that noise causes mental illness itself, but there is little doubt that it may accelerate or intensify some kind of mental disorders," explains Hagler. He adds that symptoms of exposure to noise pollution include anxiety, nervousness, nausea, headaches, emotional instability, argumentativeness and changes in mood. No wonder excessive noise has been used as a form of torture.

... In the United States, back in the '70s, when [psychologist Arline] Bronzaft was documenting how children studying in classrooms next to elevated train tracks had delayed learning, there was an outpouring of official concern about the effects of noise, on both health and quality of life. In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act. The Environmental Protection Agency had its own Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which still exists today, but as an unfunded skeleton. What happened? "A man got elected president named Ronald Reagan and everything stopped," says Bronzaft. The Gipper decided that noise was best regulated by cities and states, but federal funding to help them evaporated. Attempts to re-fund the office have failed. ...

[The results of a 3-year study of the physical effects of living near giant wind turbines is planned for publication late this summer. Click here for more information.]

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