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Silent Spring Is Over: Noise as an Environmental Hazard

PC: Manh Linh

The science is now clear: We’re all just too damn loud.

“Noise pollution”, as this problem is so labeled, is often overlooked in the literature of pollution and environmental health. Perhaps this is because, compared to air and water, noise pollution sort of makes no sense at all. You clearly see gas emissions, trash, animals and the sea level, but you can’t see noise — so we automatically assume noise as benign, even inexistent.

But I urge you to step away from material pollutants, and realize that, like any great movie blockbuster, our enemies are invisible, but always around us. Noise, though immaterial, is a very real toxicant and must be a greater concern for all urban citizens.

The World Health Organization, as the leading body for health standards, started to investigate noise pollution since the 1990s, only to find that the issue had already become widespread, especially in highly urbanized areas.

In Europe alone, noise pollution singlehandedly accounted for the loss of 1.6 million years of functional life. While the suggested nighttime noise limit was 40 decibels (dB), 30% of Europeans were exposed to a constant nighttime noise louder than 55 decibels (dB), which is approximately half the maximum volume of your iPhone.

All this may seem trivial, but noise kills. And the science behind noise and disease, specifically cardiovascular and developmental health, has only recently been receiving coverage.

Last year, researchers from Denmark and Germany published a paper that explained how noise increases the chances of cardiovascular disease by changing hormone regulation and blood flow, affecting the physiology of enzymes such as NADPH oxidase and nitric oxide synthase. The specifics of this process are complicated, but the point is clear: Excessive noise is damaging to your health.

Children and the elderly are also disproportionately affected by noise pollution. Children living in areas exposed to aircraft noise – near airports, for instance – tend to be less literate and able to focus. Similarly, the elderly are more prone to cardiovascular disorders for a given level of exposure to loud noise.

Unsurprisingly, noise pollution also harms wildlife. Our loud tantrums reach far and wide, affecting mating patterns, navigation, and feeding habits of numerous organisms, from beetles, finches, to even whales.

I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s seminal work in environmentalism, Silent Spring, in which Carson argues that the use of pesticides will lead to the death of ecosystems and the silencing of life. But perhaps Carson is wrong. Today, springs are louder than ever and anything but silent, thanks to sirens, drills and car horns. Silent spring is over; spring is now loud.

What makes noise pollution such an interesting issue is its relationship to economic development. Noise pollution is a particularly urban phenomenon, worsening as more people migrate to cities and as cities themselves grow. The reason for this is rather obvious and simple: Most man-made machines emit some kind of noise. Clearly, noise has always been a part of the story of industrialism, capitalism and the urban environment.

But thankfully, I don’t think noise pollution is a difficult fight. Today, there are simple, easy and accessible solutions that ordinary urban residents like you and I can pursue. I’ll start by suggesting three easy, individual-level courses of action.

  • Know Your Enemy. Part of the problem of noise pollution is failing to problematize noise in the first place. By recognizing urban sounds – like car horns, loud speakers, drills, et cetera – as adversarial, we can start with Step One: Framing the problem.
  • Human Decency. If we all agree to quiet down, it just might work. Especially when driving, we can use horns more economically. We can also respect quiet hours better. (PSA: In California, quiet hours are between 11 P.M. to 8 A.M.)
  • Be Creative. NoiseTube is a clever mobile application that allows users to map and monitor noise pollution on their phones. Likewise, people are developing creative solutions to reverse the noise damage we’ve done. We can support such initiatives, or better yet, start some ourselves.

Ultimately, noise pollution is a real threat, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We are the ones producing the noise that threatens our own health. All we need, then, is a collective “shh-ing” of society – to remind us all of Springs that were once melodized by birds, not by sirens.

Jeffrey Park is a student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Molecular Cellular Biology and Political Economy.

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