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Hear, hear: Public health officials should push governments to reduce noise

As I write, dueling leaf blowers compete, a lawn mower powerful enough for a golf course grinds around a small grassy plot, a jack hammer dril-il-il-il-il-ils the surface of Roland Avenue, cars honk at the intersection, and a police car (one of dozens daily) blares its siren up Cold Spring Lane. As the siren fades, a car stereo pulsates unintelligible music with wall-shaking bass.

Even with our windows and storm windows down and the white noise of fans, the noise makes me want to flee to a soundproof booth. And now someone is ringing the doorbell. No lie.

George Prochnik, author of "In Pursuit of Silence, Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise," wrote in an August opinion piece in the New York Times about how important quiet is to the thinking process.

He talked of how slamming doors, bellowing strangers and whistling neighbors upset 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. After moving to commercial Frankfurt, Prochnik says, Schopenhauer's sense of torture by random blasts of sound led to a philosophical diatribe against sound and, in 1850, a pronouncement that noise was the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker.

If he could find enough quiet to think, what would Schopenhauer say now? Is it noise that has caused the dwindling of coherent, constructive political discourse and action? Can 21st century Americans not think straight because of omnipresent noise?

Everything seems to be growing louder too: political rhetoric, sirens, horns, voices, the volume of music and movies. Even at restaurants, noise is the plat du jour.

Prochnik says environmental noise splits our attention, regardless of our willpower. No wonder there's road rage and thoughts are fractured. He explains the evolution of mammalian hearing. Initially, hearing was geared to the detection of predatory animals, with ears evolving as powerful amplifiers. By the time the brain registers a sound, the auditory mechanism has increased the volume "several hundredfold" from the initial sound wave, he says. 

While our relationship to our environment has changed, he says, part of our brain has not registered that change. Whether or not we choose to try to tune out noise, some parts of the brain still perceive the sound as a predator coming at us.

When it is noisy outside, no wonder I become agitated trying to write for several hours. No wonder my artist husband, who paints at home, blows his stack periodically after a spate of doorbell and telephone ringing, the simultaneous arrival of the whirring grass-cutter and the banging roofer, and the beep-beep-beeping of a truck backing down our street. We can ignore it only for a while.

Prochnik says our perceived ability to block out sound now poses another danger. We try to pretend noise does not affect us. If we complain, we are ridiculed for being too sensitive or a "geezer," as some younger kids called me when I was 20 with acute hearing.

Few city governments take measures to reduce sound. Public health officials, however, should push for action. Prochnik reports that a 2009 study, Hypertension and Exposure to Noise Near Airports, found that the noise of planes taking off and landing caused blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates and the release of stress hormones even when people were asleep. The study showed also that these harmful responses continued to affect the individuals many hours after they awakened.

He also cited a recent World Health Organization report that estimates that Western Europeans lose more than 1 million healthy life years each year because of noise-related disability and disease. I wonder if any studies have been done in the United States.

Has noise distracted us and cluttered our minds so badly that we cannot think straight enough to evaluate our noise and act on behalf of good health, or even on the healthcare costs of noise?

   

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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