It's Time to Get Serious About Noise Pollution

Public Domain. Picryl/ bashing steel with a sledgehammer is noisy

If you could see "aural litter" you would be shocked at how much of it there is.

TreeHugger recently discussed the question of indoor noise, but hearing expert Shari Eberts points out the dangers of the outdoor noise that bothers everyone in cities. She complains:

Sustained exposure to noise is associated with higher levels of stress, which itself exacerbates a myriad of health problems. According to WebMD, “Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.” Yikes!
WebMD is often alarmist, but the staid editors of Canada’s Globe and Mail write:
The issue of noise is evolving into a public-health question. Noise has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. It has been shown to affect the ability of children to learn – and adults well know the difficulty of concentration in a noisy office. “Excessive noise seriously harms human health,” says the European office of the United Nations World Health Organization.

Some people love making noise. There are cars with giant stereos (and the occasional scooter rider with a giant boom box on it), or the guy a few doors up from us with a giant Harley that shakes the whole neighbourhood when he starts it up. But there is also the general din from construction, from trucks and buses, from honking horns. And as the editors note, “When people live together in crowded places – the city life most of us experience on a daily basis – we share our many pollutions. Amid it all, noise as pollution has long been an afterthought.”

It shouldn’t be. As Eberts notes, as people get older, they get more sensitive. “Many people with hearing loss have a higher than average sensitivity to loud sounds. In the extreme, this is called hyperacusis, and is quite debilitating. Background noise also makes it harder to pick out the important speech sounds we are craving to hear.”

David Owen wrote about this recently in the New Yorker, calling noise pollution the next big public health crisis. He compares noise pollution to other forms of ecological desecration:

Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vermont, told me, “What we’re doing to our soundscape is littering it. It’s aural litter—acoustical litter—and, if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out the window as we go driving down the road.”

Perhaps Tim Cook and Apple will help make this acoustical litter more obvious. According to Shari Eberts,

The Fall 2019 software update for the Apple Watch will include a Noise app that scans your environment and warns you when decibel levels are getting too high. Hopefully this feature will make monitoring noise levels easier and more routine — an important first step towards raising awareness about the importance of protecting your hearing.

Putting cameras in phones changed the way people see the world; perhaps this new app will change the way we hear it. Maybe Apple will make their maps useful by overlaying aural maps, highlighting the parts of cities or buildings that exceed standards of safety. It certainly might help make noise pollution, acoustic litter, easier to measure and do something about.

In Europe, cities have to develop noise maps and create action plans to tackle noise hot spots. Here is one of Florence; Sasha Zeidler writes in the Globe and Mail that it has been very effective.

noise map of florence

Noise map of Florence/ European Environment Agency/Public Domain

In the past 10 years, more than €42-million have been spent in Florence on noise interventions such as the replacement of old pavements and school remodelling, which was a priority of city planners. The introduction of pedestrian areas in busy locations like Palazzo Pitti has been “a revolution” in Florence, where [consultant] Dr. Raffaella Bellomini said the noise problem is now solved. Since 2008, the average noise measured throughout the day has been reduced from over 70 decibels to less than 55 decibels during the daytime.

It’s time to take this issue seriously, and do this in North America. And start around the corner from my house, with that damn Harley.