by Jim Lundstrom

The Scene

April 4, 2009

Noise, (noun). A stench in the ear. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Fresh spring air isn’t the only thing we’re letting in now that we’re finally able to open our windows again. People are cranking up their various noise machines and a jumble of random street sounds intrude after a winter of relative hermetic peace and quiet.

Ambrose Bierce, the unmitigated cynic quoted above, also defined noise in his contrary dictionary as “The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.”

Sadly, his sardonic definition seems all too true.
Leaf blowers – the lazy bastard’s rake and broom – are being fired up. Gas-powered lawnmowers. Motorcycles. Boom boxes. Boom cars. Road construction. Sirens. The constant whine of freeway traffic. A never-ending cacophony of noise.

But we don’t have to take it. An Oshkosh-based national organization called Noise Free America ( is dedicated to the proposition that civilization does not have to be so noisy.

“I think noise is a gateway crime,” said Ted Rueter, a political science professor at UW-Oshkosh and founder of Noise Free America. “I think noise leads to deterioration in the quality of life. It leads to the destruction of neighborhoods and communities. Noise means that the bad guys have taken over.”

The group’s mission is to raise awareness about noise pollution and its damaging effects, advocating for a quieter civilization and assisting the noise-bedeviled with solutions that range from neighborly discussion to police intervention to legislation.

“People write all the time asking for help, what to do,” Rueter said. “We’ve got an 800 number – 877-NOISE-NO (664-7366). People can call and leave a message and I’ll call them back to talk about their individual circumstance. We’ve got a 70-page document on our website on how to fight noise, dealing with the neighbors, dealing with the police, media. How to file a noise complaint. We give advice all the time on how to proceed.”

Noise Free America was founded by Rueter in 2001 when he was teaching at UCLA.

“I found UCLA to be the loudest campus I’d ever been on and Los Angeles the noisiest city I’ve ever been to,” Rueter said.

At the time he was teaching a political advocacy course that required students to take on a political cause, either individually or in a group.

“I decided to focus on noise on campus,” Rueter said.

He and a group of students identified 44sources of noise pollution on campus.

“Lots of leaf blowers, edge trimmers,” Rueter said. “When they would clean the sidewalks, they would use these incredibly loud power washing machines. I would have jack hammers going on outside my classroom. Always construction going on. Backup beepers on service vehicles. The union was incredibly noisy. All the stores were blasting music. Boom cars blasting through. Car alarms. Motorcycles. It was just a cacophony.”

The group had some modest success – for example, no jackhammers during daytime school hours and campus maintenance hours were changed for more weekend work.

“At the end of it I decided to form a national organization,” Rueter said. “Now we’ve got 52 local chapters in 27 states. We’ve got a database of thousands. Hundreds of financial contributors. We have an online discussion group where anti-noise activists discuss what they’re doing. People report on their experiences. It’s a source of moral and strategic support. We’ve also got a noise control engineer who provides free advice to members of the public about technical solutions to noise.”

The organization would like to see the Obama administration reopen a federal noise pollution agency that was shut down by President Reagan.

“The office was established by the Noise Control Act of 1972 and it’s called ONAC, Office of Noise Abatement and Control,” Rueter said. “It existed from ’72 to ’81 when the Reagan administration defunded it. His business lobby buddies were lobbying him that this noise office was trying to curtail their activities. The law is still in the books, but there’s no money to enforce the law, so we’ve written a 5,000-word position paper calling on the President and Congress to re-establish funding for this.”

Rueter joined the UW Oshkosh political science department in September, so NFA came with him.

How does Oshkosh and the campus stack up to UCLA and Los Angeles in the noise department?

“It’s not too bad around here, but there’s definitely a leaf blower problem in my neighborhood,” Rueter said. “There’s a guy across the street from me who uses his leaf blower basically as a dusting machine. He goes out there at random times and sees a single leaf or little pile of dirt, he will use that as a broom or rake. I think there’s something particularly grating about leaf blowers. I’ve heard it described as a dental drill gone berserk. Just the sound is really grating. It’s also really grating because it’s just completely unnecessary.”

Rueter realizes he is fighting a Sisyphean war against the noise of civilization.

“There are new sources of noise all the time,” he said. “There’s something called The Rumbler which police departments are now using. Their complaint is that it’s so noisy out that people can’t hear their sirens. So they’ve got this Rumbler, which just blasts away at over 100 decibels so people are forced to hear it and move over. Fire departments have something called The Howler, which is the same idea. Another source of noise that’s brand new is called the boom box in a backpack. It’s just what it sounds like. You can have your boom box in your backpack and walk through a neighborhood and blast away.”

Still, individual battles can be won, ironically, by breaking your silence.

“You don’t have to put up with this. You can take action. You are not alone,” Rueter said. “We’ve gotten so many e-mails over the years saying, I’m so glad to know of your organization. I thought I was the only one. I didn’t think anyone else cared. No one wants to be viewed as a crank, so many people don’t speak out about noise.”

Say what?

Sure, you say, noise can be irritating. But so what? You get used to it, right?

Oh, no you don’t. There is plenty of research showing that noise pollution wreaks havoc on body and mind.

Here are a few of the mental and physical results of noise pollution:

Hearing loss: “Three million people a year suffer hearing loss specifically from noise,” said Ted Rueter, founder of Noise Free America.

Chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation.

High blood pressure and heart attacks.

Aggravated behavior: “It makes people angry, makes them fight,” Rueter said. “It brings out anti-social behavior in general. People in noisy situations are far less likely to help other people and be nice to each other.

Stunts educational and language development in children: Rueter cites a study in the 1970s in which New York City psychologist Arline Bronzaft studied test results of children in schools near elevated train tracks and those not interrupted by trains. “Her study was a great research model,” he said. “She found about a 20 percent difference between the educational development of the two groups.”

Recent research has determined that we don’t even have to be awake to be harmed by noise. Our bodies still react to noise with increased blood pressure and release of cortisol – the stress hormone – while asleep.

One researcher in a European study suggested constant exposure to noise pollution could lead to chronic hypertension.