You’re alive during the Noisiest Period of Human History, and it’s having powerful effects on your body, mind, and mood. Happily, you can turn down the volume.
This morning, as I often do, I walked with my dog by the Potomac River along a pretty stretch managed by the National Park Service. Both of us watched a pair of nesting mallards, and I spotted a couple of hawks circling overhead. A great blue heron flew by, all gangly and prehistoric. It could have and should have been a blissful moment of repose from D.C.’s urban frenzy. But above the hawks was a disruptive blast of low-flying commercial airplanes, interrupted only by the heart-shaking thumps of a helicopter.
Noise is defined as unwanted sound, and modern life is full of it. The world’s background-noise levels are likely louder now than at any point in human history. More of us live in urban areas—half the population of the planet—and with us comes our worldly din. Suburbs and rural areas have hardly escaped: Traffic on U.S. roads has nearly tripled in the past 30 years, and the number of passenger planes keeps rising and is expected to increase by as much as 50 percent by 2032.
I never knew how much noise bothered me until I moved from the Rocky Mountains to D.C. several years ago. Even though my new city is filled with greenery, parks, and trails, it’s hard to escape a pollutant that is both invisible and pervasive. Above my medium-density neighborhood, more than 800 aircraft fly every day to and from Reagan National Airport. I notice the airplanes the most but also the sirens, service trucks, and construction equipment, not to mention all the sounds of competitive lawn maintenance.
I often feel on edge, like it is hard to take a truly deep breath. Peace and quiet—as well as the sweet sounds of nature—can be important to achieving true relaxation. As Erling Kagge, the polar explorer and author of the forthcoming Silence in the Age of Noise, puts it, “Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking…a deeper form of experiencing life.” Kagge knows silence; he once spent 50 days plodding around Antarctica by himself.
Because I was interested in learning more about how my new urban environment was affecting my well-being after my move, I borrowed a portable brain wave–monitoring device for my head and started wearing it around like a crown of thorns. My kids tried to steal it because of the cool sensors. The neighborhood dog walkers cut me a wide swath. I persevered.
I wanted to see how my brain was responding to all the noise around me. So I wore the machine along the Potomac trails, but my nervous system was too busy noticing the jets. The device’s software spit out an interpretation of my mental state: “This indicates that in this state you were actively processing information and, perhaps, that you should relax more often!”
That’s the thing about noise. It demands high-powered effort on our part, both to interpret it (is it a threat?) and to block it out. It’s one of the great unsung reasons that modern life takes a toll on us. And it’s a bigger one than most of us think. Unwanted noise is harder to block out than unwanted sights. We hear things even when we sleep.
I’ve noticed that not all my neighbors are as annoyed as I am.
“I don’t even notice the planes,” says Lauri Menditto, who has lived here for 20 years. Another neighbor, Nick Keenan, has a theory: There are two kinds of people—those who become increasingly sensitive to noise and those who learn to tolerate it. Some people download apps that play sounds that connote nostalgia, like train horns. It’s hard to imagine anyone would actually want to listen to low-flying jets, however.
It turns out Nick is partly right. Many of us can become habituated to noise, at least somewhat. But there is a hard-core minority, about 20 percent of people, who will remain irritated by loud, common sounds. We are more sensitive to stimuli. And some of us are so annoyed that we go to extremes. Consider the case of 82-year-old Pennsylvanian Frank Parduski Sr., who reportedly ran out to confront an offending motorcyclist, only to be run over. New Scientist magazine called the poor fellow “the world’s first anti-noise martyr.”
Ted Rueter is another of The Annoyed. Rueter, who suffers from noise-related headaches and fatigue, once boldly bought a neighbor an outdoor sweeper, a quieter alternative to a leaf blower. He delivered the gift with brownies. But his neighbor returned the offerings, and the near-daily gas-powered lawn care continued unabated. When Rueter left the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught political science, he decided to take up the cause. Now he runs Noise Free America, a North Carolina-based coalition of dozens of citizen groups working to strengthen regulations and enforcement around the nation.
“Noise definitely wears me out,” he says. “I think a lot of people are of the belief that noise is a nuisance we have to live with rather than a significant health problem.” It can be a hard battle to wage, he says, because it’s a pollutant you don’t see. Nor do you see the damage, as you would smog or a dirt-clogged river.
I feel Rueter’s pain. These days the suburbs, especially if they’re leafy, can be just as loud as urban areas. Leaf blowers, along with lawn mowers, circular saws, surveillance helicopters, and the omnipotent planes, regularly impinge on my home-office shed, which has a roof about as thick as a sardine tin. Leaf blowers, I learned, can spin screamingly fast—up to about 8,000 rpm. Their high, whining pitch is particularly grating, falling somewhere between a baby with colic and a table saw approaching your cranium.
Hearing develops before vision in the womb. It is our dominant sense when it comes to sudden threats. It tells us something is out there and from which direction it’s coming, triggering our strongest startle reaction. In fact, mammalian ears can be incredibly sensitive. When Carl Linnaeus was deciding what to call our class of animals in 1735, he had a few unique characteristics to name us after, including our mammary glands and our fine inner ear structure. Clearly he was a boob guy.
Our three delicate ear bones, our eardrums, and our pinnae—the hairs that deliver vibrating molecules into the brain, where they are processed as “sound”—may have evolved in early mammals in part to help them locate insects for food. This may be why human ears today are especially tuned to high-pitched sounds like mosquitoes and, yes, leaf blowers.
Health experts have long been concerned about noise because of its threat to hearing. Loud noises, whether at chronic levels over time or in sudden bursts, damage the pinnae, leading to permanent hearing loss. Across the U.S., a quarter of adults ages 20 to 69 show signs of noise-induced hearing impairment, and a recent study in Ireland found that one in two millennials shows early signs of hearing loss, mostly from excessively loud music in their headphones. Hearing is one of our great superpowers, and yet we are cavalierly giving it up.
Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and the scale increases logarithmically, so that 65 dB is 10 times as loud as 55 dB and 100 times as loud as 45 dB. Sixty decibels is high enough to drown out normal speech, and anything over 85 dB (such as busy city traffic) can damage hearing over time. The airplane noise in my neighborhood logs in at about 55 dB in an average 24-hour period, but individual planes can spike much louder, sometimes at 5:30 in the morning. This significantly exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 40 dB at night to prevent sleep disturbance.
If you think noise doesn’t bug you, research suggests you may be fooling yourself. Studies show that even when people sleep through loud noises, their nervous systems are still responding as if preparing to wake and run if need be. This takes a toll.
“What we’re learning from quite a lot of studies is hearing loss may be just the tip of the iceberg,” says public health expert Richard Neitzel, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “As more research comes out, we see associations with heart attacks and high blood pressure, and guess what: That’s what kills Americans most. We are ignoring this at our peril. Noise is not just a nuisance to be accepted as a by-product of modern life. It can be just as bad for us as other pollutants we’ve been regulating, like ozone and particulate air pollution.”
Sound gets delivered to deep parts of our brain that are connected to the centers for fear and arousal. With enough rumbles and roars, our nervous systems can become stressed-out over time, says Neitzel. This is why people living in noisier neighborhoods have up to a 17 percent higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and hypertension. Old and young people seem to be especially at risk. Scientists have also found associations between increasing noise levels and the release of stress hormones.
Alarmingly, more than 20 studies have shown that noise pollution can affect children’s learning outcomes and cognitive performance. Some children in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom whose schools sit under flight paths or near busy airports show poorer reading comprehension and memory than children at quieter schools, even after adjusting for income and parental education. In fact, for every five-decibel aircraft noise increase, the reading scores dropped by the equivalent of a one- or two-month delay.
ALL OF WHICH leads to the question, What is a city or suburb dweller to do? It turns out, people have been asking this question for a long time. Many of the loudest city sounds come from vehicles, which was true even before the dawn of cars and trucks. Ancient Rome was said to have banned chariots at night. The Founding Fathers in Philadelphia had the cobblestone streets covered with dirt lest their important work be disturbed.
In 1907, Manhattan socialite Julia Barnett Rice founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. Its main campaign was focused on tugboats, which blew their horns more than 1,000 times a day. Mark Twain was an early supporter. Unlike the airport activists in my neighborhood, Rice was successful: Congress passed legislation restricting horn blowing.
But then came the wider use of the automobile, and city noise was to grow and not stop. Soon the car cacophony was joined by sirens, jackhammers, skill saws, leaf blowers, airplanes, helicopters, and subways.
Today Guangzhou, China, is the loudest city in the world, followed by Delhi, Cairo, and Mumbai, according to research compiled by the World Health Organization and Mimi, a hearing-technology company. The quietest cities all lie within Europe: Zurich, then Vienna, Oslo, Munich, and Stockholm. That’s because the European Union takes noise seriously, both funding research into health effects and regulating industrial equipment to protect workers from hearing loss. Germany even discourages lawn mowing on Sundays. (Though between runway expansions and an increasing number of flights, the airports in Europe are still a source of irritation for many residents.)
Thanks to the federal deregulation movement in the 1980s, the United States follows a much more local—and often lax—approach to sound regulation. This is why, says Rueter, it’s so important for citizens to speak up and defend their right to relative peace. Residents in a number of communities, including Los Angeles and other cities in California, have successfully lobbied to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, though enforcement is a major issue. To replace gas leaf blowers, activists promote battery-powered leaf blowers, which are improving in power and are several orders of magnitude quieter.
Airport noise here, as in Europe, is harder to tackle. Santa Monica, California, is scheduled to close its airport after 2028. The posh resort town of East Hampton, New York, logged more than 30,000 noise complaints against its airport in 2015. But when the town tried to impose nighttime curfews on flights, a federal appeals court ruled that the town had to obtain Federal Aviation Administration approval first. East Hampton lost its bid to go to the Supreme Court in June, but local officials plan to keep working on the noise issue.
THAT WON’T BE happening in my hometown anytime soon. After reading the European health studies, I installed a decibel meter app on my phone. To my children’s amusement, I now sometimes run around, phone outstretched, measuring the noise levels in and out of the house. Distressingly, they are similar to levels associated with hypertension and learning delays. Apart from moving, there are some steps we can take. I now often wear noise-canceling headphones while working at home. I tell my teenagers, frequently, to turn down their music and protect their ears. But, being teenagers, they tend to wave me off. In this they are not unlike most Americans when it comes to auditory concerns.
Perhaps we have ignored noise pollution for so long because we are visual creatures, suggests Colorado State University postdoctoral researcher Rachel Buxton, PhD. She’s been studying the detrimental effects of noise on the mating and feeding patterns of wildlife, including birds. She’s also been mapping and modeling sound throughout the nation. Despite the problems she sees and the steady growth of noise over time, she’s optimistic: “We have the technology and methods to manage noise pollution.” She points to recent innovations like “quiet pavement” that muffles traffic noise, quieter home and yard machines, and strategies to consolidate aircraft noise over roads. Peer pressure helps, too. In Muir Woods in Northern California, the National Park Service simply put up signs designating a quiet zone around the biggest, most majestic trees. “And people listened,” she said. “No pun intended.”
Neitzel from the University of Michigan thinks we may have reached Peak Noise. Soon, he hopes, we will read the studies, come to our senses, and start enforcing reasonable limits to find peace once again.
In the meantime, I will keep searching for peace on my own. On a recent short vacation in Maine, I woke up very early and headed down to a small, hill-rimmed lake. I clamped down the EEG cap and slid into a kayak. Paddling through a foot of soft mist resting on the water’s surface, I headed across, toward a generous expanse of the White Mountain National Forest on the far shore. I couldn’t see my blade, but I could hear its drips, as well as the birds of morning along the shadowed woods. A few jets flew overhead, but they seemed very far away. I filled my lungs with the moist air and the sun and the birdsong, and I gently floated the boat along.
Once I returned and uploaded the data, I got this message: “Even with your eyes open… you enter a relaxed state very easily.”
Finally I had tricked the machine into thinking I was some sort of bodhisattva. For a few moments on a quiet lake, I was.
Case Study: SANTA MONICA, CA
Create Your Own Data
In 2010, John Fairweather and his wife were so fed up with the Santa Monica Airport that they were considering a move. For a long time, residents tolerated the airport, which was mostly used by hobby pilots, but then it became a popular stop for jets and helicopters. So Fairweather, who owns a software company that he runs out of his home, started digging. Believing that knowledge is power, he rallied volunteers to count planes, log tail numbers, and measure decibels. “We needed to create a more informed debate so something could be done,” he says. He handed his findings to the city council, which took up the issue and later settled with the Federal Aviation Administration to allow for the closure of the aiport after 2028.
Case Study: NEWTON, MA
Chat Up Your Neighbors
Karen Lane Bray thought she was alone in her loathing of the gaspowered leaf blowers in Newton, Massachusetts. Then she read a newspaper op-ed by a woman who was starting a group to push for a ban. Bray, who eventually took over the whole effort, set out to talk to as many Newtonians as possible. “The best way to make change with your neighbors is to develop relationships with them,” she says. She canvassed outside the supermarket and library wearing a sign that said ASK ME ABOUT CHANGING LEAF BLOWER LAWS. Soon she had hundreds of people to call on for support at city hall hearings. In January, the city banned gas leaf blowers between Memorial Day and Labor Day and required all blowers to be 65 decibels or quieter all year.
Case Study: ELKHART, IN
Meet with Your Mayor
Bradley Vite, an art dealer and real estate broker who suffers from tinnitus and heightened noise sensitivity, spent two-plus decades lobbying for antinoise laws in Elkhart, Indiana—until, in 2008, the city agreed to designate a noise enforcement police officer, whose sole job will be to issue $250 to $2,500 citations for nuisances like excessively loud cars. Over the years, Vite sent letters to council members and state senators, but he says meeting with the mayor proved most effective. “He’s like the CEO,” he says. “If the mayor is supportive and has a good relationship with the council, that’s the first step.” Bring your city leader articles like this one to reference issues and stats; noisefree.org has printable guides. And be persistent, says Vite: “I had to go through three mayors before I finally got a noise enforcement officer.”