by Carol M. Ostrom

Seattle Times

May 21, 2003

Ah, the halcyon days of just-about-summer in Seattle. The air is warm and fragrant, and you’re dying to send some of that stuff through your stale, winter-weary home.

You throw open your windows. The warm air rushes in, bringing the heady scents of lilac and mock orange.

And … noise.

The dull roar of traffic, punctuated by the distinctive blats of Harleys and rumbles of muscle cars. The window-rattling vibration from the plane overhead. The rock music played by the guy across the street, who — like you — has thrown open his windows.

The big dog next door: Woof-woof-woof-woof-woof … WOOF!

Very likely, researchers say, if somebody were to slap some monitors on you, they’d find your blood pressure up, breath coming a little faster, stomach starting to get a bit balky. They’d probably find you were having trouble concentrating, maybe even getting crabby.

Nipping noise

If you’re concerned about environmental noise, here are some suggestions from Noise Free America:

• Don’t use leaf blowers, and don’t hire gardeners who do.

• Don’t use car alarms or keyless entry systems if they often malfunction.

• Keep your car’s muffler and exhaust system in good shape.

• Use your horn only in emergencies.

• Position your TV and stereo so that sound stays inside your home.

• Consider using headphones.

• Train your dog not to bark; never leave it alone in the yard.

• Warn your neighbors if you’re going to make unavoidable noise.

• Turn down your telephone ringers.

• Keep your cellphone on vibrate.

• Think about noise levels when you buy new appliances, especially vacuum cleaners and air conditioners.

• If you own a restaurant or store, monitor noise levels.

• If your home is being remodeled, insist on quiet before 8 a.m.

• If someone lodges a noise complaint against you, treat it seriously and respectfully.

On the Web

For more information on the health effects of noise:

• Noise Free America

• League for the Hard of Hearing

• City of Seattle noise page

Everybody knows that Big Noise can permanently hurt your hearing. An epidemic of baby boomers with hearing damage — including former President Clinton — has reinforced warnings about ear-blasting rock concerts, close-by fireworks, gunfire and even saxophones. Even common noises at 85 decibels, a measurement of sound somewhere between the typical alarm clock and a lawn mower, can damage ears if they hang around long enough.

But what about that low-level noise? Dishwashers, traffic, music, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, airplanes?

While such noise may not damage your hearing, researchers are finding that your body reacts to it in the same ways it does to other types of stress. Unwanted sound, says Cornell University noise researcher Gary Evans, “puts demands on you, and you try to cope with that — but some of the things you do to cope aren’t very healthy.”

Noise, says the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, can elevate blood pressure, cause fatigue, reduce sleep, increase frustration and anxiety, disturb digestion and impair concentration.

The World Health Organization, which also has studied “community noise,” concluded these effects can lead to 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 blood pressure to rise and could lead to greater risk of cardiovascular disease. A Swedish study found people living in the highest-noise zones near airports were much more likely to have high blood pressure than those who lived farther away.

One study — a staged incident with someone getting out of a car and accidentally dropping an object — also found passers-by less likely to help when a nearby lawnmower was running, Evans notes.

Researchers have found that hearing improves during times of stress. But that super-alert state can make us even more susceptible to noise.

Some of noise’s effects on the body involve age-old “fight-or-flight” mechanisms which cause your body to pump out stress hormones, constrict your blood vessels and, in other ways, prepare you to fight or get away.

And if you can’t?

Evans and other researchers say being repeatedly annoyed by something you can’t do anything about brings about “learned helplessness syndrome,” in which motivation diminishes. For example: When researchers asked test subjects to solve a puzzle, they found people in noisy environments gave up sooner.

For children, noise that’s loud enough to interfere with hearing words can have even more serious effects. Like adults, they can “get used to” noise. But to cope, they ignore not only the noise, but speech, which leads to problems learning to read, says Evans, an environmental psychologist.

Arline Bronzaft, a New York psychologist and noise researcher who consults for many anti-noise groups, found children in classrooms facing a noisy elevated train track, by the sixth grade, had fallen behind in learning by as much as a year, compared with kids in classes on the quiet side of the building.


To file a noise complaint

Construction, mechanical equipment, commercial facility noise:

Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) noise coordinators at 206-684-7843 or City of Seattle.

Public nuisance noise, such as dogs, fowl, other animals, horns or sirens, music, amplified sound, motor vehicles or watercraft: Seattle Police Department’s nonemergency number at 206-625-5011.

Aviation Noise: Noise from aircraft and helicopters in flight is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, local airports have responsibility for collecting information on noise complaints and notifying the operators.

• Sea-Tac International Airport: 206-433-5393.

• King County International Airport (Boeing Field): 206-205-5242.

• Renton Municipal Airport: 425-430-7471.

• If you don’t know which noise hotline number to use, and for seaplanes, call the FAA noise complaint line at 425-227-1389.

If the noise complaint concerns noise emanating from ground operations of an aircraft at Boeing Field, or at a seaplane base or heliport within the Seattle city limits, you may file a complaint with DCLU by calling a Noise Abatement coordinator at 206-684-7843.

Source: City of Seattle

Even when people say they’re not being annoyed, their bodies can be experiencing detrimental changes, Evans said. Blood tests on workers in noisy offices found elevated stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, even when they said they weren’t bothered by the noise.

“You can get used to noise, and after a while it doesn’t bother you too much,” he said. “But you pay a heavy price for getting used to it, because it’s something that does place demands on your system. You can figure out strategies to cope with it, but there is no free lunch.”

Bronzaft says even people who claim to sleep through noise may experience its effects. “They often get knocked out of the cycles of sleep,” she says. “They may not realize they’re reacting to it, but they are. There’s always a toll.”

Noise wars

But wait, you say. You make noise, too. And you like your noise.

When you’re alone in your car, you crank up the music, and even belt out a harmony line. You like a boisterous party just as much as the next person. And you’re excited about building a deck onto your home, a project you’ll work on after you come home from work.

One person’s noise, it seems, is another person’s lullaby. Is the staccato roar of a gas lawn mower early on Saturday morning a rude noise that awakens you grouchy and tired from a sound sleep? Or is it an evocative drone that sends you back to sleep, dreaming of lazy afternoons in a hammock?

One of the definitions of noise, says Curt Horner, longtime noise expert with the Seattle-King County health department, is that it isn’t yours to control.

Many sources of noise — construction, airplanes and traffic — appear to be out of your control. And political solutions, these days, seem less likely. Since 1993, says Horner, the city-county health department’s noise program hasn’t been funded, although laws exist regulating noise both in Seattle and King County. In Seattle, police respond to some complaints, and the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) to others.

David George, a noise coordinator with DCLU, says Seattle’s topography makes it very hard to mitigate noise. Its geographic boundaries prompt dense development and intense traffic, its many bodies of water reflect sound, and homes on hills are bombarded by commercial and industrial noise from below. Residents repeatedly exposed to construction noise express high levels of frustration, he says. “This last five years, people are going insane, because it never stops. It’s legal, but it’s nonstop.”

Around Puget Sound, as in many communities, battles between airports and homeowners or school districts can take decades to resolve. After a quarter-century of negotiations, the Port of Seattle, the state and the Federal Aviation Administration agreed a couple of years ago to pay for noise mitigation in 15 schools, including 10 elementary schools. The first, Madrona Elementary in SeaTac, will re-open in 2004, said Highline School District spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers.

Restaurants have become a new battlefield in the noise wars. Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson, after hearing from many readers, said she’d been forced to “blow the whistle” on clamor. Now, she evaluates restaurants’ noise along with their food and service.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, restaurant critics carry meters that measure decibels. Noise ratings have gotten “tremendous feedback,” says executive food and wine editor Michael Bauer. In his recent “top 100” list, he said, about 75 percent were rated “four bells” — environments in which people must raise their voices to talk. Many would-be diners tell him they avoid patronizing such noisy places, he noted.

Psychological effects

Most people don’t have to go out to find noise, unfortunately.

The U.S. Census Bureau, after an American Housing Survey of more than 106 million households in 2001, reported that noise was the No. 1 neighborhood complaint — more worrisome than neighborhood crime.

Sometimes noise contributes to that neighborhood crime: “Noise” and “shooting deaths” too often link in reports. For example: In New York City’s Brooklyn Borough last month, a 65-year-old who had complained about foot stomping and loud music from the apartment overhead was charged in the shooting deaths of the neighbor and his friend.

Noise was by far the most frequent complaint to a new New York City “311” nonemergency city response line set up in March, noted Bronzaft, who sits on the mayor’s council on the environment. Out of a total of 42,639 complaints over six weeks, more than 20,000 concerned noise.

A Seattle City Council staff report in 1999 put noise complaints at about 12,000 per year, up considerably from previous years.

“Noise psychologically drives people mad,” said Bronzaft, who is often called in to help mediate noise complaints. Before she can help solve their problems, she said, “I have to calm the person down. … That’s how anguished they are. As a psychologist, I just know what it does to your head. Most people just can’t take it.”

Evans and other researchers say much more research is needed on specific health effects of noise, particularly on the effects over time. “The U.S. is so far behind,” says Evans. “Almost all of the really good research that’s being done is in Europe and now Japan.” Controversial but intriguing findings that need more work include those showing noise may affect placental physiology, newborn birth weight and early development.

Some noise problems already have technical solutions: infrared headphones for televisions, better sound insulation in construction, quieter planes and tools. “It’s not the know-how that’s missing,” says Bronzaft. “It’s the will. We haven’t attended to this.”

For now, as with many health issues, these researchers say, the place to start is with yourself.

Assume your happy sounds are “noise” in the ears of your neighbors and act accordingly, Horner advises. “Noise is the greatest stressor in American urban life, and even sometimes suburban life,” he says. “If everyone were courteous to their neighbors, we wouldn’t have a noise problem.”

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or [email protected]

This article also appeared in:

* The Detroit Free Press