Noise Pollution Takes Toll on Health and Happiness

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

In the beginning there was silence, and it was good.

From silence came sound, not all of which was good. And the sound that was not welcome was called noise. And there got to be more and more of it, because who wants to rake when you can blow?

Let me be honest. I don't get along with noise. I see it, or rather hear it, as the essayist Ambrose Bierce did around the turn of the last century: as "a stench in the ear."

And by "noise" I don't mean only the noises that everyone agrees are bad for your hearing -- those ear-splitting sirens and the stand-right-next-to-the-speaker heavy metal concerts. Even everyday noise eats away at my nerves.

You may say I'm thin-skinned, but I have science on my side. A growing body of evidence confirms that the chronic din of construction crews, road projects, jet traffic and, yes, those ubiquitous leaf blowers, is taking a toll on our health and happiness.

Providing scientific proof of this has not been easy -- in part because noise, defined as "unwanted sound," is to a large degree a matter of personal taste and sensitivity. The romantic hears a train whistle differently from the insomniac. And no small number of Americans pay good money to hear the same rock-and-roll music that was used to torture the holed-up Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, and Waco's David Koresh and induce cooperation from prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But study after study has found that community noise is interrupting our sleep, interfering with our children's learning, suppressing our immune systems and even increasing -- albeit just a little -- our chances of having a heart attack. It is also tarnishing the Golden Rule, reducing people's inclination to help one another.

"Everyday noise is under the radar, yet it affects everyone's life," said Louis Hagler, a retired physician in Oakland, Calif., and an advocate for quiet, who recently published in the Southern Medical Journal a review of studies linking noise exposures to health problems. "We don't say to people, 'You just have to learn to live with sewage in your water,' " Hagler said in an interview. "Why should we tolerate sewage coming into our ears?"

As I write -- from home today, the better to concentrate, I told my editor -- there is a person up the street blowing leaves and dust from one part of his property to another. To accomplish this task, he is generating a sound that is only a little less intense than the 85 decibels that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health says is physically damaging over a period of hours, and more than loud enough to make it almost impossible for me to think.

Leaf blowers may be my pet peeve, but it is modern transportation -- cars, motorcycles, trucks and air traffic -- that accounts for most of the background noise that disturbs and even sickens people.

More than 40 percent of Americans whose homes have any traffic noise at all classify that noise as "bothersome," according to the 2005 American Housing Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. One-third of those say the noise is so bothersome they want to move. All told, more than 100 million Americans are regularly exposed to noise levels in excess of the 55 decibels that federal agencies have recommended as a reasonable background intensity.

Here in the Washington area, a battle over airport noise is posed to erupt this summer as the Senate considers adding as many as 20 new daily takeoffs and landings at Reagan National, a move opposed by neighbors already fed up with the steady roar of low-flying jets.

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