Studies show the ruckus might be getting to us whether we know it or not.
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Nancy Culbertson won’t sit in her Fremont, Calif., backyard because of it.
It caused Oakland, Calif., physician Louis Hagler’s blood pressure to spike and marred his perfect health record.
Oakland acupuncturist Julie Laura Rose had enough of it, and packed up to move to Vallejo, Calif.
It’s noise. Droning, piercing, incessant noise.
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Even at night, cities and suburbs pulse with boom cars, alarms and trains.
Part of city living, right? Maybe so, but studies show the ruckus might be getting to us whether we know it or not.
High blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, sleeplessness, annoyance, diminished work production and poor school performance can result from prolonged exposure to noise, according to reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.
Despite mounting evidence that persistent, prolonged exposure to noise is bad for us, governments and lawmakers aren’t doing enough to address it, said Hagler, 74, a retired physician who has spent the past decade researching the impacts of noise pollution.
“How do you convince people that secondhand noise is a problem? It’s a lot like cigarettes were 20 years ago. It’s spooky how similar it is,” Hagler said.
Noise is overlooked in the same way secondhand smoke was once dismissed: Those who complain aren’t taken seriously, even though health impacts have been documented, said Hagler, who co-authored a chapter on noise for “Emerging Environmental Technologies II,” a recently released resource for policy makers and scientists.
Eardrums are also showing signs of duress. An estimated 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have some kind of hearing loss due to noise exposure at work or play, according to the National Institutes of Health.
There are limits to what human hearing can handle. Sound is measured in decibels, and an increase of 10 means that sound is 10 times louder. A whisper is 30 decibels and a normal conversation 60 decibels. Prolonged exposure for eight hours at 85 decibels, such as city traffic or lawn equipment, is when hearing problems begin, the National Institutes of Health said.
There’s also mounting evidence that points to noise increasing the risk of cardiovascular disorders, including hypertension and heart disease, according the World Health Organization. Last fall, WHO declared noise the biggest environmental nuisance facing Europe and issued night noise guidelines calling on officials to limit exposure to below 40 decibels — corresponding to the sound from a quiet street in a residential area.
Sleepers exposed to higher levels over the year can suffer mild health effects, such as sleep disturbance and insomnia. Long-term exposure to levels above 55 decibels — similar to the noise from a busy street — can trigger elevated blood pressure and heart attacks, WHO said.
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Hagler didn’t just happen upon the subject — it was keeping him awake at night, literally. About 10 years ago, freight trains near his former Richmond, Calif., home increased the frequency of their trips, and were blasting their horns at every crossing, day and night.
“It made me crazy every time I heard the noise,” he said, “and my blood pressure went up.”
A former U.S. Army medical officer, Hagler previously had a perfect health record. Suddenly he couldn’t sleep and was taking blood pressure medication. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all increase when the system reacts to loud noises, he said.
“It became the fire in my belly and I decided to do something about it,” he said.
After complaining to the Richmond City Council in 2001, Hagler found that other residents were fed up too. Their efforts led to Richmond becoming one of the first places in the country to take advantage of legislation allowing cities to establish “quiet zones” for train crossings, where horns aren’t routinely sounded at every passing.
When Hagler moved to Oakland four years ago, he became interested in the issue of noisy “boom cars” and motorcycles. Although he’s taken the issue to local police and the city council, Hagler admits he’s yet to have an impact in the city. In Oakland, violent crime and just keeping police ranks fully staffed top the list of concerns.
“Big city” noises such as BART and the whine of traffic aren’t the only stressors. Even in the suburbs, leaf blowers and lawn mowers take their toll.
“There’s a high-frequency pitch unique to leaf blowers that makes them more annoying, and they are revving them up all the time,” said Peter Kendall, 52, a semiretired bond trader who founded Quiet Orinda last year with his wife, Susan.
The group has been gathering signatures in hopes of persuading the Orinda City Council to ban the machines. Kendall and his supporters haven’t revealed how many signatures they have so far, or when they plan to present them to the city.
The Kendalls say they have also begun researching the impacts of dust and pollution kicked up by the leaf blowers as an alternative strategy for fighting them. The air pollution argument carries more teeth with lawmakers, they say, than arguments about the effects of constant noise.
Dr. Michael Kron, a psychiatrist supporting Quiet Orinda, said the leaf blower noise is a serious issue for those trying to work at home or catch sleep during the day.
“Noise doesn’t have to be persistent, it just has to be out of your control and intermittent,” said Kron, who has a practice in Walnut Creek. There’s a reason that noise is used in battle to subdue the enemy, he said. “It’s been weaponized.”
And for those who have no control over noise that’s bothering them, a “learned helplessness” creeps in, Kron said.
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Not everyone annoyed by noise sticks around for it. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 30 percent of Americans have complained about noise. Among those who complained, nearly 40 percent wanted to move because of it.
Rose, an Oakland acupuncturist, is one of them. She recently decided to pack up after 13 years in an older apartment building near Lake Merritt. She loves her home and the neighborhood, near Adams Point, a new Whole Foods and Oakland cathedral.
But Rose, 53, is planning to flee with her cat and dog to a house in Vallejo this month to get away from the noise of idling diesel trucks, vans, car alarms and regular mobile shredding operations at an office across the street.
She finds herself cringing at the din and automatically counting when car alarms go off — she knows exactly how long they will last.
“My nervous system reacts and shoulders and ears tense up,” she said.
Noise is always going to be a part of city life, but controlling exposure to it can be managed through legislation and technology, Hagler said.
In the U.S., the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978 are still on the books but unfunded. The federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control’s funding ran out in 1982, shifting regulation responsibilities to state and local agencies.
During 10 years of operation under the U.S. EPA, the federal noise office and the legislation had funded research, laid down noise regulations, published public health criteria and even sponsored an international conference.
In recent years, Web sites, such as the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse at www.nonoise.org and NoiseOFF, www.noiseoff.org, have sprung up, trying to increase awareness of the issue and providing information about noise exposure, ways to get noise regulations strengthened or enforced and listing resources to make urban living quieter, such as using acoustical building materials and window treatments.
Noise has been long been recognized as intrusive, Hagler said, but we need to become smarter about how we manage it. who also co-authored an article with his late wife, registered nurse Lisa Goines, in March 2007 for the Southern Medical Journal titled “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.”
“The goal is not to create a silent world,” he said. Many sources of loud sound are tolerated because they are deemed necessary, such as household appliances and emergency sirens, he said. But many more, such as from boom cars and deafening noise at sporting events and concerts, are considered noise because they come from unwanted sources.
There’s a difference between the noise of a bus going by and boom car. “One serves a purpose and one is self-aggrandizing,” Hagler said.
Health professionals must lead the way, Hagler said, by pointing out the impacts of too much noise. Improved local regulations and active enforcement of existing laws is needed.
“We just have to get smart about secondhand noise,” he said, “and turn down the volume a little.”
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Decibel levels of common sounds:
Normal breathing: 10
Refrigerator humming: 40
Quiet office: 50 to 60 (Comfortable hearing levels are less than 60 decibels.)
Average city traffic, garbage disposal: 80 (Constant exposure may cause hearing damage.)
Lawn equipment: 85 to 90 (Eighty-five decibels is the level at which hearing damage begins with prolonged, eight-hour exposure.)
Symphony orchestra: 110 (Regular exposure to sound over 100 decibels for more than one minute risks permanent hearing loss.)
Rock concerts: 110 to 140 (Threshold of pain begins around 125 decibels.)
Jet engines (near): 140
Loud car stereos: 145
Details: A noise meter with common sounds can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise.
Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders