by Lewis Wallace

Wired News

February 15, 2003

The world is getting louder.

From jackhammers and jet planes to leaf blowers and lawn mowers, a dizzying array of modern devices shatters the silence in cities and suburbs alike.

Some like it loud: Many motorcycle riders and hot rodders customize their rides for maximum aural impact, and theaters crank up the volume of movie trailers to get audiences’ attention.

Other folks crave a quieter world.

Ted Rueter, for instance, hates leaf blowers, boom cars and Muzak. He holds automobiles’ keyless entry systems in particularly high disdain, since they wake him in the wee hours of the morning.

“It’s lunacy,” Rueter said. “I can’t sleep through the night.”

The nonstop sonic bombardment so irritated Rueter, who teaches political science at Tulane University, that he became an anti-noise activist.

Rueter, director of Noise Free America, found his righteous cause — fighting noise — while living in a Southern California suburb which he called “leaf-blower hell.”

“I think the gods sent me to L.A.,” he said.

Noise Free America’s expansive legislative agenda calls for actions — outlawing gas-powered leaf blowers, punishing owners of barking dogs, impounding loud cars and so forth — that might seem radical “until people think about it,” Rueter said. He prefers to characterize the agenda as “comprehensive.”

In fact, some of the group’s more radical proposals already are in effect in some cities. Chicago impounds automobiles for noise violations. New York City’s Operation Silent Night targets “escalating clamor” with vehicle checkpoints and other tactics.

For Rueter, the war against noise is all about simple quality of life.

But today’s noise-rich environment can cause physical trauma that leads to hearing loss and tinnitus, phantom “head noise” that can prove debilitating.

Between 28 and 30 million U.S. residents suffer some hearing loss, said Dr. Stephen Wetmore, chairman of the otolaryngology department at West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. In approximately a third of those cases, noise is a factor, Wetmore said.

While increased workplace regulation has helped protect workers from hearing loss, on-the-job exposure remains a bigger problem than recreational noise, said Wetmore.

But lifestyle choices can cause real problems. Hunters, for instance, can suffer significant high-frequency hearing loss, Wetmore said. And loud music at concerts and dance clubs can damage ears.

“If you’re in an environment where you have to yell to be heard, it’s probably too loud,” Wetmore said, adding that if you leave a concert with buzzing or a full feeling in your ears, you are, at best, suffering from temporary hearing loss.

The louder the noise, the more damaging it can be. According to a League for the Hard of Hearing fact sheet, symphony concerts can reach 110 decibels. Rock shows, of course, can be even louder.

Up to about 80 or 90 decibels is not much problem, Wetmore said. But length of exposure is an important part of the equation. At 90 decibels, exposure should be limited to eight hours; for each five-decibel increase, exposure time should be cut in half, Wetmore said.

So is today’s technology a loaded gun aimed at the ears of the world?

Wetmore says that without noisemakers like hair dryers and sirens, obviously, our environment would be much quieter.

“But on the other hand, we are using technology to eliminate some of the noise,” Wetmore said. Sound barriers, increasingly effective mufflers and better earplugs help combat noise-induced hearing loss, he said.

Technology has so far failed to deliver a cure for tinnitus, the phantom ringing or buzzing in the ears that afflicts an estimated 50 million people in the United States, said Shannon Edgel, director of resource development for the American Tinnitus Association in Portland, Oregon.

Tinnitus can be caused by repeated or one-time exposure to any kind of loud noise, from chainsaws and subways to screaming kids and thunder, Edgel said.

“As noise levels increase, we’re seeing more and more people with tinnitus,” she said.

A variety of tinnitus treatments produce varying results, but “there is no cure to date,” Edgel said.

“Prevention is really the only thing” that can stop tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss, said Kathy Peck, co-founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers. Like Noise Free America, HEAR pushes for legislative action.

But HEAR also targets concert goers directly, enlisting “street teams” to pass out earplugs and information outside music venues. One typically hip flier couples a sober warning — “Sound levels within may cause hearing impairment” — with more plain-spoken advice: “Wear your damn earplugs.”