by Paul Strikwerda

April 11, 2011

“The day will come when man will have to fight merciless noise as the worst enemy of his health.”
Robert Koch, 1880

It happened last year, late in the morning. I had five people on speakerphone, and all of them would be listening in to my voice-over session. Two of them were in Europe and they represented a BIG client. Two others worked for the ad agency that was responsible for the campaign I was about to voice. The last person was going to be my director.

This moment had been many months in the making. After numerous auditions the client confirmed that they had finally found their ultimate European voice: ME! I was thrilled, I was amazed… I was nervous. The next hour could open up a whole new chapter in my career.

Luckily, things got off to a good start. They loved my take on the text and the only thing that was slowing us down was the bickering of the ad men debating some last minute script changes. After a few practice rounds we were ready to record. Then disaster struck.

My neighbor Chad, who wasn’t even supposed to be home, decided that this would be the perfect time to start mowing his already meticulously manicured lawn.

You should know that Chad is in perpetual competition with our other neighbor Brad, involving what I call a “power tool obsession”.

When Brad gets a new toy for Christmas, Chad has to have a bigger one. Brad gets a wicked weed whacker. Chad answers with a tool that is capable of drilling a black hole in your front yard. Brad buys a leaf blower that unleashes a hurricane. Chad responds by getting a machine that can change the earth’s rotation.

My vocal booth isn’t totally soundproof, so, when Chad powered up his turbo-charged lawn mower to cut his green, green grass of hope, it didn’t take long before the roar of his monstrosity reached my clients in Europe.

I never knew these things could break the sound barrier. Trust me. They can, and nobody will do anything about it. Why not? Because this is a free country and people can do whatever they want!

Too bad that one person’s right to dictate the number of decibels in their neighborhood interferes with another person’s right to domestic tranquility (one of the six guarantees in the United States Constitution). The loudest person usually wins the argument.

Have you noticed that in the past few decades our world got louder and louder? Non-profit Noise Free America says that a culture of noise has taken root in our society:

“In this new culture, it’s cool to be heard–and the louder the better. Whole new industries are thriving from noisy products aimed at disturbing the public peace. Two of the chief noise-making industries in the United States today are the amplified car stereo industry and the modified muffler industry.”

Some would argue that the way we experience sound is subjective. A noise annoys one person and thrills another. To keep things simple, I will define noise as “an unpleasant, undesired sound.”

Lisa Goines, RN and Louis Hagler, MD call noise pollution “a modern plague” that will only get worse because of population growth and urbanization.

More people means more highway, railway and air traffic (major sources of noise pollution). In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cities. This number grew to 47% in the year 2000 (2.8 billion people), and it is expected to grow to 60% by the year 2025. (source)

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Americans cite noise – more than crime, litter, or traffic – as the biggest problem affecting their neighborhoods. Take New York. According to a study co-authored by Columbia University researchers and released in October, last year, noise in 98 percent of Manhattan’s public space exceeds healthy levels.

Author Dr. Robyn Gershon, an occupational and environmental health and safety researcher:

“Honking cars or quarreling neighbors raise our stress, but background noise like truck traffic that New Yorkers take in stride may be even worse.”

She continues:

“Noises on the street can be stressful and increase your blood pressure. Studies that have measured sound spikes have found your blood pressure will increase, even if you yourself don’t recognize that that spike is happening. People don’t get used to it, and they don’t realize it.”

Of course we don’t have to live in New York to experience the disturbing effects of traffic, car alarms, roaring mufflers, jake brakes, motorcycles, boom cars, landscaping tools, barking dogs and noisy neighbors. Every street has a few Brads and Chads.

Sounds need not be very loud to be intrusive either. My neighbor’s crappy dollar store wind chime, for instance, is enough to keep me up at night. A dripping faucet can be torture. A 2008 study by the Imperial College in London suggests that noise while you are sleeping can significantly raise your blood pressure, even when it does not wake you up.

The word “noise” actually comes from the Greek word nausia, meaning seasickness or feeling of sickness.

People who have been excessively exposed to low frequency noise may suffer from Vibroacoustic disease (VAD). Think of aircraft technicians, commercial and military pilots and cabin crew members, restaurant workers and disk-jockeys. Depression, increased irritability, anxiety, aggressiveness and decreased cognitive skills are all symptoms of VAD.

Increased anxiety and irritation leads to an outpouring of stress hormones (fight-or-flight response) and rises in heart rate and blood pressure.

Don’t expect the Brads and Chads of this world to be overly concerned. On one hand, they’re proud to be loud and will tell you that ear plugs are for sissies. On the other hand, they might have become so accustomed to a certain sound level that they don’t experience it as loud anymore. Third, Brad and Chad could be turning deaf.

One in five U.S. teenagers suffer from at least slight hearing loss, a significant rise from a decade ago, when the rate was only one in seven. A study published last year, concluded that youngsters often say they are not being exposed to loud noise because they are simply unaware they are listening to music at dangerously high levels.

Are they even aware of the sounds surrounding them when they finally stop listening to their mp3 players?

Are you?

Let’s do a quick experiment, shall we?

Stop reading for a moment and close your eyes for a minute or two.

Now, listen carefully to each and every sound you hear.

Which sounds are natural and which ones are man-made?

Which sounds are inevitable and which ones are avoidable?

Open your eyes.

What did you notice?

Were you aware of these sounds before you started listening?

Gordon Hempton* is an audio ecologist and author of “One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World”.

Hempton describes silence as:

“the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”

He believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States – and none at all in Europe – where you can sit for twenty minutes during the day without hearing a plane fly over or some other noise from human activity.

In “Zero Decibels,” George Michelson Foy documented his search for absolute silence. He tried noise-canceling headphones, flotation tanks and silent meditation. The place he found the greatest silence was in an anechoic chamber, a soundproof room at Orfield Labs in Minnesota.

He believes that we’ve conditioned ourselves to noise pollution because, in part, we don’t know how to listen anymore. Foy:

“Listening is absolutely key to this whole concept. (…) it’s something that we’ve forgotten how to do, and in so doing, we’ve forgotten some of the richness of the world that we live in.”

If silence is such a scarce and precious commodity, why are we putting up with all the noise? Foy told NPR’s Neal Conan:

“I think the reason that people choose or agree to live in these environments to some extent is because they’re scared of silence. They’re scared of silence because sound is kind of the carrier beam of our civilization. It’s what convinces us that things are working, that machines are moving and that cash registers are ringing and that everything’s all right around us, we’re supported.”

He agrees with Hempton that -just as we need clean air to breathe- we need silence to sustain us. Foy:

“If you’re trying to compose a piece of music, you can’t do that if you’re listening to another piece of music. You have to switch that off and allow your brain and your creativity room, auditory room, to create something new.”

As we have heard, noise pollution is much more than a quality of life issue. Some researchers have compared the dangers of unwanted noise to the dangers of secondary smoke. But if it really is such a threat to our mind, body and spirit, aren’t there any regulations to protect us from it?

Well, I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s start with the good news.

In 1972 the Noise Control Act was passed by Congress, declaring:

“. . . it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes health and welfare.”

The Act requires the coordination of federal research and activities in noise control, authorizes the establishment of federal noise emissions standards for commercial products, and authorizes the distribution of information to the public regarding the noise characteristics of commercial products.

To enforce the Noise Control Act, the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was created within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Here’s the bad news: congress ended funding of the federal noise control program in 1981, which curtailed development of further national regulations.

Even though ONAC’s funding was eliminated, the Noise Control Act remains in Effect and the EPA remains legally responsible for enforcing the Act’s provisions – but lacks the funds necessary to do so. On its website, the EPA refers to citizens organizations, states, local government, the FAA and FRA to tackle noise pollution issues.

Noise Free America believes that…

“The elimination of the federal noise office is responsible, to a significant degree, for the uncontrolled levels of noise pollution in the United States today.”

Perhaps the European Union will take the lead in the fight against noise pollution. On March 30th, the World Health Organization (WHO), released new evidence on the health effects of traffic-related noise in Europe. The conclusion:

“Among environmental factors in Europe, environmental noise leads to a disease burden that is second in magnitude only to that from air pollution. Traffic-related noise accounts for over 1 million healthy years of life lost annually to ill health, disability or early death in the western countries in the WHO European Region.”

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe:

“We hope that this new evidence will prompt governments and local authorities to introduce noise control policies at the national and local levels, thus protecting the health of Europeans from this growing hazard.”

For now, Brad and Chad have nothing to worry about. Their government has just agreed to some of the most drastic budget cuts in history, and it doesn’t look like ONAC’s funding will be restored any time soon.

Meanwhile, my noisy neighbors probably think that I am some silly left-wing, liberal, tree-hugging, birkenstock-wearing European, who wants to take their toys away.

It’s true: I crave quietude and I long for tranquility, but most of the time, I just want to be able to do my job and not disturb anyone. Is that abnormal? Does that make me a radical environmentalist?

Back in my sound booth and with five people on speakerphone, I was praying for a miracle, as Chad’s ongoing mowing cut everything that was growing.

“Did the space shuttle just land in your back yard?” asked the director. “What’s going on? We really need to keep rolling. We don’t have all day, you know.”

I must posess some special powers because -all of a sudden- I heard a loud bang followed by foul language followed by… silence!

To Brad’s amusement, Chad had managed to mow over his power cord and by doing so, he inadvertently saved my European voice-over session.

A day later he was back on the battlefield, armed with a gasoline-powered push mower that was even louder than his Ninja motorcycle.

There and then I knew that I had two options: I could either move out of the neighborhood or I should get a soundproof voice-over booth that would be able to head off any future enemy attacks.

In my next blog series I’ll tell you how I built my booth on a budget.

Paul Strikwerda ©2011