by Mark Clayton

Christian Science Monitor

April 15, 2004

Ah, the sounds of spring! Birds chirping, peepers peeping, a breeze rustling in the trees – as lawn mowers rumble, cellphones ring, and car stereos throb their way through neighborhoods.

Warm weather brings all kinds of sounds to life. But hearing the natural world in springtime is getting harder than ever no matter where you live, according to Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vt.

“Without question our society is much noisier than it used to be,” he says. “People used to move to the suburbs to get away from it, but now they have to listen leaf blowers, riding mowers, eight-lane highways. We’ve brought our noise with us from the city.”

Noise pollution, which has been a back-burner issue for decades, is causing new stirrings of revolt. Along with legislation at the federal level, antinoise campaigns are under way at the state and local level as residents rally for tighter noise ordinances in a bid to reclaim their soundscape.

“Right now we’re at the infancy of the antinoise movement – where air and water pollution were in the 1960s,” says Ted Rueter, an author and executive director of Noise Free America. [Editor’s note: In the original version, Rueter was misidentified.]

Noise pollution activists like Dr. Rueter say they get a lot of e-mail berating them for bothering about noise when there are more serious issues out there. But an even larger and growing number of responses come from those who are fed up with the din.

“We’re still at the point where people need to know that others feel the same way,” Rueter says. “It’s like secondhand smoke used to be. People were once afraid to speak up for fear of being called a nut or kook.”

Transportation – from planes, trains and cars – was the nation’s major source of noise for the first half of the 20th century. At least since World War II, though, other noisemakers have steadily intruded into mostly quiet areas like national parks, rural areas, and wilderness. Now more recent inventions are proliferating and adding to the mix, Mr. Blomberg says.

Car alarms, jet skis, cellphones, snowmobiles, chain saws, and riding lawn mowers have pumped up the volume in every walk of life. Now, there’s “the Beast,” a cherry red Ford Bronco with a 48,000-watt stereo system.

“Boom cars,” along with their kin “vroom cars” with modified mufflers, came of age in the 1990s. But the Beast is a boomer with few peers. With shatterproof glass and a huge power supply, it can pump out 175 decibels – eight times the sound of a Boeing 747.

Alma Gates, the silver-haired grandmother who created and owns the Beast, lets it out to play only to blow competitors away at “sound drag racing” competitions. Yet the boom-car phenomenon, urged on by car-stereo manufacturers, has produced thousands of Beast-wannabes cruising America’s streets. (“Shake the living, wake the dead,” is speaker manufacturer Cerwin Vega’s slogan. Sony offers: “All new ways to offend.”)

And that’s a problem for Carla Moore, from Youngstown, Ohio. For years she put up with boomers, until the subsonic vibrations began shaking things on her mantel. Finally she decided to fight it with citizen action.

In February 2002, Youngstown was designated one of the “noisy dozen,” by Noise Free America. (Jesse Ventura recently won the award for touting his new Hummer and its powerful stereo system.)

After news articles about the designation appeared, Ms. Moore began appealing to the city to strengthen its noise ordinance. It did. Now Youngstown police find it easier to cite boomers and the noise level has improved – though not enough to suit Moore.

“We used to have hummingbirds and rabbits come to our yard,” she says. “But since the booming started you don’t really hear birds anymore in the warm months. I used to sit and listen to the wind in the trees, watch TV, work on the computer. Now all we can hear are these cars running up and down the street. You can’t hear anything else.”

Street noise is the No. 1 problem Americans cite when asked what bothers them most in their neighborhoods. In a 2001 US Census survey, 11.8 million households (out of 106 million reporting) said street or traffic noise was bothersome. An additional 4.5 million residents said it was so bad they wanted to move.

Standing on a Boston street corner, Blomberg gazes at a tripod-mounted decibel meter – taking sound-level readings that show the traffic at about 70 decibels. A horn blast and accelerating diesel truck engine send the meter soaring to 80 decibels. That’s really loud because every 10 decibel increase effectively doubles the noise.

Blomberg, who hold a master’s degree in philosophy, says the increasing noise is becoming an environmental-justice issue because poor communities often suffer from loud noise at night.

Even so, noise pollution has taken a back seat for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency created a noise abatement office in 1972. But under President Reagan, funding was cut and it was closed in 1981.

Back to Congress

Now, antinoise activists are on the political warpath again. In Congress, at least 10 bills aim to regulate noise – mostly aircraft flights over wilderness, park lands, and residential areas. Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York has proposed – repeatedly – a Quiet Communities Act that would reinstate EPA’s noise abatement office.

But most of the action lies at the state and local level. Scores of cities – from Chicago to Los Angeles – are tightening noise ordinances. In California alone, at least 17 cities – including Sacramento and San Diego – have clamped down on leaf blowers. Vancouver and Toronto are considering similar regulations. Indeed, leaf blowers seem to have become the poster child for noisiness. Robin Pendergrast, a power-equipment company lobbyist, warned the industry in a 2000 analysis that more than 450 communities in 20 states, Canada, and parts of Europe, had tried to restrict or ban the machines.

Even in New York City, where car alarms and the thumping basses of the club scene cause the most complaints, noisiness is under attack. And city officials are listening. A two-year-old push to bring peace and quiet to New York neighborhoods is called “Operation Silent Night.” Armed with sound meters, New York’s finest are citing businesses that violate noise ordinances.

One grass-roots group called “the Silent Majority” is pushing hard to ban the bane of sleep-deprived New Yorkers – the car alarm. A recent study by Silent Majority, entitled “Alarmingly Useless,” calculated the monetary cost at more than $400 million in lost productivity, health costs, property values, and diminished quality of life.

“In my neighborhood people have punctured tires of cars when the alarm won’t shut off,” says Aaron Friedman, who heads “The Silent Majority.” “A friend of mine says he’s even seen cars set on fire and burned when the alarm won’t shut off.”

Noisy and needless?

Indeed, one reason for the backlash against car alarms is a widely shared sense that they are ineffective. Insurance studies show little or no difference in theft rates between cars with alarms and those without, Mr. Friedman says. “It’s quite shocking how frustrated people get,” he says. “But then again, these alarms are designed to irritate people at 120 decibels. It’s like living in a war zone when you’re trying to sleep.”

Some see the problem as part of a larger issue of “the commons,” others as a health issue. The World Health Organization has issued guidelines and the European Union has taken steps to monitor sound across its member nations. But the bottom line is that since noise always trumps quiet, people have to care about the quiet in order to preserve it – which means they have to care about their neighbors.

When moving doesn’t work

The traditional solution for the noise-annoyed has been to insulate one’s home or move. But with boom cars on the loose, their subsonic waves rattling mantels, even those solutions are no longer a guarantee. “You might move and have a new noise problem pop up,” Blomberg says. “What we’re seeing now is the growth now of community-oriented solutions.”

One of those solutions could be technological. Speaker technology is so sophisticated it could be used on fire trucks to target only the street ahead and side streets – not the air above or behind the truck.

High-tech rescue

“People assume that because we live in a technological society the one price we must pay is noise,” Blomberg says. “But the same technology can be used to quiet the noise – that’s a message that has not reached people.”

As the noise level rises, so will lawsuits against manufacturers of noisy products, and more antinoise legislation is already coming, Rueter predicts. Besides ongoing litigation against airport noise, the running legal battle over snowmobile noise in Yellowstone National Park and similar sites is just the first round of national noise-related litigation, he says.

But Blomberg offers that a little civility and well-crafted legislation could keep a lid on the sound and fury of lawyers in courtrooms. His website admonishes that “good neighbors keep their noise to themselves.”

Then again, there’s always Lorain, Ohio’s solution: the sledgehammer. After residents there petitioned to stop the booming, the city adopted an ordinance permitting confiscation of the offending car stereo system after a second offense.

Pete Rewak is the municipal court officer in Lorain who carries out the death sentence of municipal judges on offending car stereos. It’s not a job he relishes. But ever since his picture appeared in the paper swinging his big hammer, he’s had people telling him they’d like to help out. “Yep, some people do say that,” he says.