Tag Archives: environment

Noise: Do We ‘Have’ to Make It?

Have you ever heard the charge of cars, double-decker buses or 18-wheelers over a cobblestone paved road?  If not, I wouldn’t advise the experience without some ear and stress protection.  Several months ago, I lived in Brussels and had a fifteen minute walk to the office.  My preferred route was a slower paced stretch of road that outlined the Parc du Bruxelles, a graveled park that depending on the season and dust level, provided some green space comfort in the city.  But to reach that park, first, I had to traverse three blocks of cobblestone.  Motorists entered this thruway at top speed because, I believe, of the road’s design – no lane dividers, no indicators of right-of-way at the south-end ‘Y’ intersection.  Even the ‘take-your-life-in-your-own-hands’ crosswalk had faded to a spattering of gray-white paint.  The stone street was a free-for-all that translated to ‘go fast to get there first.’  And they tried- the buses, trucks, vespas, Audis, Peugeots- all gunning as if the faster speeds would yield a smoother ride.  But in the real world, they only jangled to a roar; a wave of metal and rubber engulfing  pedestrians, like me.

Back home in Seattle, I now notice ‘too loud’ cars and trucks speeding on the streets, but it’s nothing like the cobblestone eruptions.  Recently though, I woke in the night, a bedroom window open only a crack, and I heard it. The neighborhood rested, but it was there, constant; the whoosh and static hum of Interstate-5.  Relentless, it had been there all along.  As the sun rose, so did the more immediate sounds of vehicles, overhead air traffic, barking dogs, crying babies and a delivery truck or two.  The highway noise was buried beneath.  Even now, mid-day, I can no longer pick it out, but I know it’s still there; the noise hasn’t evaporated.

Is this noise my subjective complaint, or is it a pollution?  Sources define noise pollution as an unwanted, even harmful sound from man-made things like airplanes, automobiles and industrial zones. From hearing loss to heart disease, I read that chronic noise exposure can have negative effects on the human body.  Spikes in heart rate, elevated stress levels and blood pressure from noise are not just physical reactions of the hypersensitive. Constant stimulation of a body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) from elevated noise levels, can lead to sleeping disorders, stress and hypertension.  And while we may think we can simply adapt to increased noise through strategies such as selective hearing and deep breathing, our internal systems, including our cardiovascular system, do not acclimate.

I know that living in cities like Brussels or Seattle has some noisy consequences.  The affected communities and people tend to adapt.  When noise isn’t unusual, certain amounts are accepted as part of the everyday.  High and low frequency and decibel levels for hearing health have even been standardized.  Within a world where noise is normal, most solutions for reducing the pollution react to the problem that exists – the noise that already fills our ears.  From industry to consumer, could more proactive steps increase awareness, peel back the layers of noise, and scale down the amounts created in the first place?  In this age of space tourism, Google Glass, and the ‘Whisper Quiet’ pet clipper, where is the soundless lawnmower, blow dryer and garbage truck?

Besides hearing damage from excessively loud music, I never knew about other health hazards of chronic noise exposure.  My body and mood felt vexed, irritated, even enraged from elevated noise, but I thought it was my individual problem; I just needed to calm myself down, think positive thoughts, find a way to adapt, and get used to it.  Maybe I could run, use another route, or wear earplugs while relying on my non-traumatized senses for urban navigation.  Imagine my surprise when I read that the health hazards of noise have been known since before I was born.  In fact, in the 1960‘s, the surgeon general who first put the health warnings on cigarette packs, Dr. William H. Stewart, also warned that noise was a hazard, not just a nuisance.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Office of Noise Abatement and Control to regulate noise issues at a federal level and enforced the Noise Control Act of 1972.  But, ultimately, officials decided that noise issues were best handled at a state and local level; regulation responsibilities were transferred to cities and states in the early 1980’s.

Before closing their noise reduction offices, the EPA released the 1978 document, Protective Noise Levels: A Condensed Version of  EPA Levels Document; an educational piece listing the maximum A-weighted sound levels in decibels for a variety of consumer products.  After my initial confusion I learned that ‘A-weighting’ is the measurement of sound pressure levels commonly used to assess environmental and industrial noise.  Further, because I did not have a reference for decibel levels as compared to actual sound, I picked one of the most common items listed – the vacuum.  The 1978 document listed the maximum A-weighted sound level for a vacuum from 60 to approximately 85 decibels.

What did that mean?  When checking out the market for vacuum cleaners on Amazon.com, decibel ranges were not common product specifications.  As a consumer, I never considered the noise level when purchasing a vacuum.  Vacuums are just noisy, right?   Or, maybe, that had been the only option available, but not the only one possible.

I looked up ‘quiet vacuums,’ and Amazon.com advertised a few.  The decibels listed from 60 to 67; the cheapest sold for around $200, canister style, not upright.  In 1978, 60 decibels for a vacuum cleaner fell in the maximum sound level range.  The other ‘non-quiet’ vacuums on Amazon.com, both canister and upright, did not advertise the decibel output, and the least expensive model sold below one hundred bucks.

Beyond the vacuum, volts, watts, horsepower, and weight are readily seen in most household appliance or device specifications.  Decibels and sound emissions are not.  I came across a website which reviewed the top 10 electric lawn mowers for 2014; decibel levels were not mentioned in any of the mowers’ details.

Without labeled sound emissions, consumers, like myself, cannot consider or compare the sound effects of products – unless stores offer test drives for vacuums, mowers and blowers.  Maybe the ‘quiet’ options are too few to compare.

My internet searches highlighted the technologies used specifically for noise reduction.  One company urged the use of certain engineering principles during the initial design of products to curtail sound emissions.  Another company promoted noise suppression materials and techniques, such as sound barriers, compressors and the installation of sound-absorbing-stuff.  Active Noise Control was listed as a technology which displaces sound waves, muffling the various sounds of appliances and motors.  Quieter pavements and lubricated rail and train tracks were mentioned in articles as effective for less noise.

In the Seattle area, the Sound Transit’s light-rail has had lubricating devices installed on its trackway to reduce the trains’ screeches.  I reached out to city offices to ask what other noise responses are active in Seattle.  While the city lacks a comprehensive strategy monitoring and addressing noise as a pollution and health hazard, noise is addressed in some capacity on a project by project or department basis. For example, permits granted for construction projects in the city do require an inspection for noise. Carpooling, public transportation and bicycle commuting are encouraged.  The State Environmental Protection Act also has noise restrictions to limit the impact of noise at certain times of day.

Several years ago, the Washington Department of Transportation (WDOT) won a prestigious award for innovative efforts to handle noisy roads.  The WDOT used asphalt-rubber and polymer pavements on sections of major roadways in the Seattle area.  Unfortunately, the results of the WDOT study revealed that these ‘quieter’ pavements were not audibly quieter after 6 months of wear.

I keep thinking of the interstate roar that is out there, but masked at this mid-day moment.  My mind may not fully register all sounds and effects, but my internal systems activate as the duo leaf blower team revs engines to remove a few rogue leaves from bushes outside an apartment building and the cranked car stereo plows down the street rattling windows and my rib cage.

And what is that in the distance, approaching like a black cloud…a buzzing swarm of drones?

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

Noise: Adapting to a Pollution

A jumbo jet rumbles across the Seattle sky.  A garbage truck screeches to a halt outside.  And a neighbor slips on ear muffs, ignites a gassed up leaf blower and sends any unprotected eardrums into a fleeing panic.

In some instances, noise vibrations can cause the ear to bleed.  Exposure to loud rock music through blasting earbuds or concert hall speakers can lead to permanent hearing loss. Unmuffled motorcycles revving down residential streets can spike tempers and heart rates. Consistent screeches, pops and clack-clack-clacks from nearby construction projects can pump a person tight with stress.

Noise pollution is an unwanted or harmful sound from man-made things like automobiles, airplanes and industrial workplaces, expanding to sirens and horns, boats, trains, and lawn care machines.  Finding acoustic reprieve can be difficult.

Annoyance from noise is not just the reaction of an overly-sensitive person, but a symptom of an unhealthy environment.  In urban areas, daily immersion in waves of unwanted sound diminishes health, sleep and lifestyle quality.  The effects of noise on the human body range from hearing loss to heart disease and spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, to instigating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which can lead to sleeping disorders, stress and hypertension.

“People in noisy environments experience a subjective habituation to noise, but their cardiovascular system does not habituate…”, claims a February 2014 article published in Environmental Health Perspectives.  So, while we think we are getting used to the ever present urban sounds, the rationalization may just be in our minds and not translated to our organs and health needs.

When the blood begins to bubble, can we turn off the noise, control it in some way or leave the polluted space?  And if escape is not an option?  Maybe we’ll just adapt.

In urban habitats, animals have developed strategies to adapt to increasing noise pollution.  Research studies released in the past few years indicate that birds, for example, sing louder and at a higher pitch to separate their song from the low frequency traffic hum.  Besides loud-talkers yelling at cell phones and pedestrian voices raised to clear the thick haze of downtown traffic, human city dwellers have adapted in additional ways to compete with escalated sound levels.

Noise canceling headphones have become a popular fashion.  White noise generators mask the cacophony outside and provide a constant sound of wind, rain, or ocean waves for focusing, relaxing or sleeping.  Apps assist urbanites in the search for quiet spaces in cities.  Installing sound-dampening fiberglass insulation, double or triple pane windows and thick carpeting throughout a house increases acoustic comfort.  Even biologically, the human brain filters unwanted noise to focus on a desired sound.  In this process of auditory cognition, more immediate sounds take priority and others fade unnoticed, or are masked until consciously heard.

Over 40 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the impact of noise levels and in response, established a national policy under the Noise Control Act of 1972 to “…promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”  The EPA no longer directly monitors and manages noise pollution.  Since the early 1980‘s, individual states and cities have shouldered the responsibility.

State and local laws have adapted to address the swell of excessive noise.  In Washington State, the Department of Ecology asserts that “Any loud noise that occurs between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. could be considered noise pollution…The zoning of your location also determines if a noise is considered “pollution”.”   Noise Abatement Coordinators in the city of Seattle hear questions regarding the Noise Code that addresses sound levels for commercial and construction projects, while Police Officers enforce the Municipal Code sections that cover noise disturbances ranging from barking dogs and human voices to motors and music.

The state has attempted to control the effects of a chronic noise sprawl, but in at least one instance, the sound waves would not be stopped.  In 2010, contractor crews for the Washington State Department of Transportation finished installing 700 noise-absorbing ceiling panels above the express lanes on Interstate 5’s Ship Canal Bridge.  The project started in reaction to the escalated traffic noise vibrating from the interstate throughout the Seattle neighborhoods below.  After monitoring the project results for a couple of years, officials determined that the finished construction did not significantly impact the noise levels from the stretch of road.  In part, the adaptations could not control all of the noise diffractions and reflections.

Daily exposure to the chronic jumble of noise is part of the Seattle city scene.  Bus routes have been cut due to budget issues potentially creating more traffic on the roads, and drones (unmanned aircraft) are said to be loud and on the horizon for package deliveries and potentially for law enforcement use.  While quieter hybrid and electric cars are commonly seen on the roads, legislation in the United States requires them to emit warning sounds for the safety of pedestrians.  Maybe urban noise pollution has reached a threshold where less noisy things are too ‘quiet’ and have become a potential threat.

An article in the August 2013 issue of Men’s Health Magazine stated that out of 100 U.S. cities, with number 1 (Durham, North Carolina), as the quietest and 100 (Houston, Texas) as the loudest, Seattle ranked number 26.  But since Seattle’s population grew by 2.8 percent (almost 18,000 residents) in 2013, becoming the nation’s 21st biggest city, should a noise swell be expected?  And what adaptations will be made?

There are always earplugs.  Until they aren’t enough.

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

Social Patterns: Getting Used To It

© Lori Fisher 2014

© Lori Fisher 2014

I like to eat sushi once every couple of weeks.  Honestly, I can only eat the salmon.  My tastebuds just don’t understand any of the other fish flavors and will immediately cringe and discard them.

Since I only eat fish on occasion, I hadn’t really thought about intake recommendations.  And then I read the recent Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly articles about fish consumption and water pollutant standards in the state of Washington and how the two are linked.  If the official recommended amount of fish consumption goes up, then the water quality needs to go up, unless (as I learned) the official standards also increase the allowed or acceptable risks of cancer.

After reading the articles, my initial response was “Wow, that’s an amazing playing with numbers, laws, and public health.”   And then I thought about the root of it.  We are adapting to the situation. Human living has created toxins and those toxins have spread into the environment. To preserve the balance between business profit and human health, some sacrifices will be made for adaptation – payment for new technology to remove at least some toxins from industrial waste, and either expose yourself to additional health risk if you want to eat fish or eliminate that food source from your diet.

Adaptation as a reactive thought seems to be a preferred solution to many social issues or events (noise, violence, consumerism, dominion); making adjustments to live within certain circumstances, until those circumstances become more normal, and maybe even expected.  Adapting comes to mind as a taught means of survival or ‘human nature’ truth.  Is it really a truth or has it become a learned social pattern for reaction or response?

Perhaps it’s about the intention of why we adapt.  Do we naturally lean toward adaptation as a species to survive a specific moment, or have we learned that we should adapt as a social control, to keep things flowing smooth, avoid conflict, don’t rock the boat, and enjoy what you have.

And is adaptation the expected course?  After reading that a state has the authority to determine water toxicity levels, food consumption rates and allowable amounts of cancer risk, would the expected thought be “This is the world I live in and I must find a way to rationalize and get used to it.”

It Could Be Better – methods of thinking

© Roz Foster 2014

© Roz Foster 2014

I’ve been reading up on noise pollution in the United States (U.S.) and the adaptations that human city dwellers have made to adjust to the layers of man-made noise in urban soundscapes.  Adaptations not necessarily to eliminate, but to lessen the impact of the unhealthy noise discomfort.

Adapting seems to be a normal, maybe even expected survival skill.  But I wonder if the ‘normalcy’ of adapting, habituating or getting used to something implies that it is an automatic response. Automatic to the point of reactive.(Reactive in the sense that action is made as a response to the situation as it is, without intention of prevention or changing the circumstances.)

Are reactive responses “normal” and proven to be easy paths with the least resistance?  On the other hand, could a proactive train of thought be an equally automatic response, or is there an assumed or projected difficulty level that makes this method of thinking less appealing?

In U.S. culture, have reactive responses been taught as the “go-to” method of thinking over proactive responses?   I think both reactivity and proactivity are used for problem solving. But is proactive thinking not the norm?

The phrase, “It could be worse” comes to mind as an example.  I’ve used this phrase countless times to describe my day, or an event, or a circumstance.  “It could be worse,” delivered with a shrug, at first appears to be optimistic, looking on the bright side of things.  But on a second look, the response appears reactive, a response of resignation and mud-stuck acceptance of a not-so-great state of being.  “It could be worse” tips the domino thinking toward all those horrible situations where, in fact, it could most definitely be worse.

What about the phrase “It could be better”?  I haven’t said that one much, and I’m not sure how much it is used in general society, but this phrase could potentially encourage the dominoes to fall another direction.  Uttering “It could be better” to acknowledge the not-so-great situation implies the next thought will emphasize how it could actually be better and what needs to happen to make the change.  A proactive approach.

Maybe there is a difference when talking about personal versus business issues.  For example, could a business prosper if someone asked “How’s profit?” and the response was “Eh, it could be worse.”   A business perspective may encourage a more proactive response like “It could be better…. and here’s how”.

For personal situations though, would a proactive method of thinking take priority?  “How are you feeling?”  What if the consistent reply was proactive – “It could be better….and here’s how.”

Could a proactive method of thinking work in today’s culture?  Or, is a shrug more likely as a response, resigned and accepting of circumstance, settling for what you have, where you are or who you are because you might lose it all and actually live the fear of “It could be worse.”

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2014