Even in rural areas, noise is a problem: residents in King City, Missouri, are complaining about the noise from wind turbines. Researchers are coining the phrase “wind turbine syndrome” to describe a collection of symptoms including headaches, anxiety attacks and high blood pressure. Researchers recommend that turbines be located at least a mile from homes, schools and hospitals. Credit: Jeff Meredith.
“America is the noisiest country that ever existed. One is waked up in the morning, not by the singing of the nightingale, but by the steam whistle. It is not surprising that the sound practical sense of the American does not reduce this intolerable noise.” – Oscar Wilde’s Impressions of America (1883)
America has evolved in noisier ways than Oscar Wilde could have ever imagined. In the place of the singing bird, one will hear car alarms, police sirens, motorcycles, jackhammers, and stereo systems as loud as jet planes. Urban settings, in particular, subject residents to potentially harmful levels of noise. Local governments are increasingly being pressured by city residents to either enforce existing noise ordinances or put new laws into effect that turn down the volume.
Normal conversations occur at 50-70 decibels, but many sounds in our environment are far above that level. Prolonged exposure to sound above 85 decibels may cause permanent hearing loss. Motorcycles commonly eclipse 85 decibels (at 65 miles per hour, they surpass 110 decibels), while small firecrackers can reach 100-110 decibels. Ambulance and police sirens fall in the 110-120 decibel range, and if you have poor enough judgment to attend a rock concert, you could experience 140 decibels. These sounds are staples of the urban experience. Out of the 28 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, one-third damaged their hearing through excessive exposure to sound.
Exposure to noise can do much more than make you deaf. There is a growing body of literature indicating that noise exposure can induce hypertension and ischemic heart disease, annoyance, sleep disturbance, and decreased school performance. Traffic noise has been shown to cause considerable disturbance and annoyance in exposed subjects. Evidence linking noise to changes in the immune system and birth defects is more limited, however.
The Washington, DC neighborhood of Capitol Hill is a hotbed for protesters and street preachers who not only like to shout their opinions, but amplify them – at a level often surpassing 90 decibels. “There are no regulations for amplified, noncommercial speech between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.,” says resident turned noise activist David Klavitter, who notes that this loophole allows people to use amplifiers as a weapon. “They’re not content using speech to influence or persuade; they’re using the sheer brute force of noise to harass people into submission,” he says.
Klavitter and other DC residents bothered by the din have urged the city council to limit noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 70 decibels. Under their proposal, fines would be assessed for louder speech, as measured 50 feet from its source. And eventually, DC activists want to be even stricter than measuring sound from 50 feet away. “We’ve offered some amendments like a property line or occupied residence provision. If someone sets up (an amplifier) underneath the window of someone’s house, they could be at 90 decibels,” says Klavitter. “A property line or occupied residence decibel level would provide additional protection for residents in DC. In an open field, you can be as loud as you want. But once the sound hits a property line where it will impact someone else, there should be limits.”
It takes an organized effort among residents to demand and implement changes which will result in a less noise-saturated environment. It starts from the ground up; most politicians are not concerned about noise or educated about its health effects. So their constituents have to speak up and be heard; they have to educate their elected officials. If it takes a little kicking and screaming to get the job done, that noise is entirely forgivable.
Story by Jeff Meredith. Read the rest of his research on the Visitor Contributions page.