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