by Robyn Monaghan

The Daily Journal (Kanakee, Illinois)

April 12, 2004

For nearly three decades, auto-body specialist Pat Mallaney has worked with noise.

Air chisels whining day in, day out. Sanders and grinders grating hour after hour.

Last week, Mallaney took out his ear plugs to hear about new reports showing noise not only attacks the ears, but may be to blame for heart problems, hypertension, cancer and stroke ã not to mention rage, depression and suicide.

A bell rang in Mallaney’s head.

“I wonder if that’s why everybody’s so crabby around here.” he said. It is no wonder Mallaney and his workers feel “irritable” working in a noisy shop, said Bob Andres, a Florida consultant in noise control and also machine safety and technical adviser for Noise Free America, a nationwide organization that fights noise pollution.

Andres thinks the constant din is most likely tainting more than just Mallaney’s temper. Feeling cranky is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, he said. When sound sufferers act grouchy on the outside, their entire system is suffering on the inside.

If someone were to hook Mallaney to some monitors, Andres said, they’d register muscles tensing throughout his body. Blood vessels tighten. The heart pumps wildly, skipping a few beats. Breath comes slightly faster. The stomach starts to knot. The monitors probably would find he was having trouble concentrating.

Noise is linked to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, aggressive behavior, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, and declining school performance, according to research by Noise Free America. Despite its efforts, though, the group says noise pollution is getting worse.

In the last 15 years, noise levels have risen six-fold in major U.S. cities, it says. The Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans’ top complaint bout their neighborhoods, and the major reason for wanting to move. Kankakee ear, nose and throat doctor David Krause is skeptical about linking noise to serious illness like heart disease or cancer. In more than 20 years of practice, he hasn’t noticed such diseases running rampant among his patients with hearing problems, he said.

“We all know that noise, if it’s too loud for too long, will stress you out. It may depress you,” he said. “But to link it to serious health problems like cardiac disease, I think is unfairly portraying cause and effect.

But it’s not just the Noise Free America folks who are coming down on the health risks of high sound. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association confirms that even low-level hubbub at 85 decibels ( a sound level somewhere between an alarm clock and a lawn mower) can elevate blood pressure, cause fatigue, reduce sleep, increase frustration and anxiety, disturb digestion and impair concentration. The World Health Organization says common neighborhood noises like leaf blowers, boom boxes and traffic are to blame for reduced productivity and ability to learn, absenteeism, accidents, “annoyance responses” and even increased drug use.

A study of workplace noise published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology last year found that job complexity, coupled with exposure to chronic noise, may cause heightened blood pressure and risk of heart disease. A staged incident in which a person “accidentally” drops an object out of a car showed passers-by less likely to help when a lawn mower was running nearby.

Katherine Chandler, a 29-year-old who works in a storefront in the gentrifying North Chicago suburb of Edgewater, has become a crusader against boom-box noise pollution. All day long, she said, her building at Balmoral and Broadway literally quakes with vibrations of music blaring from cars pausing at the corner stop sign.

With recent reports about noise pollution and related health risks making major media headlines like Time magazine (April 5) over the past few weeks, Chandler is starting to worry about what’s going on beneath her crawling skin. But she knows for sure the racket raises rage. She’s been in screaming matches with drivers. She’s flung them unflattering finger gestures. She’s called the cops. She’s become an anti-noise activist, founding Quiet Neighbors Initiatives with a friend. “My adrenaline gets pumping and I’m ready to kill,” Chandler said. “I hate to think what else it might be doing to my body.”