by William Loeffler

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

June 3, 2007

The dangers of secondhand smoke have led to health warnings, congressional hearings and bans in public places.

Now, some advocates say it’s time to confront another health hazard: secondhand noise.

The soundtrack of our lives often includes the clamor of traffic, car stereos, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, jet skis, car alarms, air conditioners, motorcycles, jackhammers and construction equipment. We live with blenders, dishwashers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and televisions. We even use white noise to help us sleep.

John Miller, of Lower Burrell, goes to the YMCA in Natrona Heights to work out. He finds himself hammered by music cranked way past 11.

“It’s just daunting amounts of noise,” he says. “There’s a spinning class there that rocks the whole building. I’m 53 years old. I’m a rocker. I played in bands. I like volume. It’s gone higher than I like. Higher than I can stand.”

Noise, often defined as unwanted sound, does more than damage hearing. It has been linked to stress reactions such as high blood pressure, sleeplessness, increased heart rate, labored breathing, cardiovascular constriction and changes in brain chemistry. Several studies have found that children in schools near airports often do worse than children in quieter schools.

“I believe the United States has really fallen behind in really acknowledging that noise is not healthy,” says Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. “Noise is a public health problem.”

Talbott has studied the effect of occupational noise exposure for more than 15 years. One study compared workers at an automobile plant, within areas where the decibel level was over 90. They were compared to an area where the levels were between 80 and 87. Men who worked in the higher decibel level had twice the risk of hypertension after adjusting for age, body-mass index, family history of hypertension and alcohol intake, all risk factors for high blood pressure.

By comparison, conversation at a distance of three feet is about 60 decibels, while a quiet room is about 40.

Talbott’s own voice gets louder as she talks about what she sees as a complacent attitude toward noise.

“It’s like radiation,” she says. “It isn’t visible. You hear it and you’re annoyed. People look at you and say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Tough it out.’

“That’s the prevailing attitude,” Talbott says. “This is the price of doing business, so to speak.”

“Noise is really audible trash or aural litter,” says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. “It’s a waste product that’s being thrust onto other people’s property. … Just like you don’t have the right to throw your McDonald’s wrapper in somebody else’s yard, you shouldn’t have the right to cast your noise in someone else’s yard.”

The Environmental Protection Agency once had a mandate to fight noise pollution.

The Office of Noise Abatement and Control, established in 1972, gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to research the potentially damaging effects of noise and determine acceptable levels. The Reagan Administration closed the office in 1982, leaving it to states and local municipalities to pass their own noise laws.

Much of the stress caused by noise often comes from a feeling of powerlessness: that there’s no escape from the neighbor’s barking dog or the roar of dirt bikes racing through a nearby field for hours on end. And if your sleep is ruined by some jerk’s stereo or television, you might be sleep-deprived the next day when you get behind the wheel of a car.

“You can avoid smoking by avoiding going to places where people smoke,” says Ted Rueter, director and founder of Noise Free America in Madison, Wis. “But noise, it’s almost impossible to get people to stop. When someone is riding a motorcycle, it can be heard by thousands of people within a few minutes. What can you do to stop it?”

Even some hospitals have become too loud. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center deployed “Yacker Trackers” in UPMC South Side and the intensive-care unit at UPMC Horizon in Greenville, Mercer County. The devices, which resemble miniature traffic lights, flash red when the noise level gets too loud.

They’re also looking to minimize noisy devices such as public paging systems and non-crisis heart monitors, says Susan Christie Martin, director of the Center for Quality Improvement and Innovation.

Our society has paid a price for labor-saving modern conveniences, says Bill Thornton, a consulting acoustics and vibrations engineer based in West Deer. He wrote separate noise ordinances for Monroeville and Murrysville and is working with officials in Springdale on a similar ordinance.

He rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle. It’s quiet. Why? Unlike a lot of his fellow bikers, he left the original muffler on.

“They’re not inherently noisy at all,” Thornton says. “I used to get kidded unmercifully for riding a quiet dirt bike.”


Local people continue the fight against the assault of noise. Here are some examples:

Toys noise

Michelle Girardi, of Hempfield, worried about the effect of noisy toys on her 6-year-old daughter, Hannah Ray, and 4-year-old son, Anthony.

“Ever since my children were small, any time they were given a baby toy, I noticed, ‘Wow, the volume is just so loud,'” says Giradi, who began putting masking tape over the speakers.

Taking them to a movie often means sitting through loud previews where, she says, they tend to show the action scenes.

“Even my children will say, ‘It’s too loud, Mom!’

“I just don’t see the need for it. It’s like being at a rock concert.”

Down by the riverside

Phyllis Framel, of Allegheny Township, had to fight for her right to enjoy peaceful summer evenings on her porch, without the noise of a dredger plying the Allegheny River or the intermittent racket from coal trains that would stop at a siding on the opposite riverbank.

“I could not sit on my back porch and have a conversation,” she says. “My house is pretty far away from the river.”

She contacted officials at Norfolk Southern, who she says have tried to work with her. Not so the dredging company, she says.

“I’m not against the railroad,” she says. “It took me a couple of years, but once I found the right person, things have really improved. … You have the right to peaceful enjoyment. When stuff like that happens in your neighborhood, you don’t have that.”

A good neighbor

Bill Thornton, of West Deer, is a consulting acoustics and vibrations engineer. He has soundproofed condominiums, town houses and hotels.

“You don’t have to go deaf using mechanical devices around the home,” Thornton says. He trims his yard with a four-stroke weed whacker, which he says makes much less noise than one with a two-stroke engine. He also has a four-stroke leaf blower. He estimates it cost him about 20 percent more than a conventional model.

“It’s very quiet,” he says. “When I buy a quiet four-stroke, I’m not only being considerate to my neighbors, I’m protecting my ears.”

The squeaky squeal

For two years, Andy Wuchina, of Unity Township, felt like a prisoner in his home.

Wuchina lived near a grocery store. In 2004, he says, the store management replaced a cooling unit on the roof. From that point, says Wuchina, the unit emitted a constant squeal. Around the clock, throughout the year.

“The noise was so bad you could hear it in side your house in wintertime with the windows closed,” he says.

Wuchina contacted the township supervisor, Jake Blank, who told him that the township had no ordinance to force the owner to quiet the unit. Wuchina says he contacted the state attorney general and WTAE-TV, but that they told him the same thing. He circulated a petition among his neighbors.

His luck changed in January, when the store changed hands. The new owner met with Wuchina and his neighbors, at a meeting arranged by Blank. The owner empathized with the residents. He changed the bearings and fan belt on the unit, and the squeal ceased.

“I went down the next day to thank him and to give his workers 20 bucks each to go buy a case of beer,” Wuchina says. “I got my summer life back.”