by Janet Lundquist

May 14, 2006

Noise pollution: How do towns measure a problem that depends on the hearer?

MOKENA — Kathy Hanley mutes her television every time a train barrels past her house on Front Street in Mokena.

The train whistles wake her up at 2 a.m., she said. She’s lived in her house near the Schoolhouse Road grade crossing for about three years.

“I don’t believe people who say they don’t notice (noise),” she said. “We’re still not used to it. My grandma lived near an airport, and she said she never heard the planes … I always heard them.”

There are two railroad crossings in downtown Mokena, a bustling area filled with shops and homes that is becoming increasingly traveled by cars, along with commuter and freight trains. After several residents complained about train whistles, Mokena officials included money in the village budget to study whether a quiet zone should be created downtown.

But the public outcry isn’t exactly deafening.

“I’ve received complaints from two or three individuals,” said Kirk Zoellner, Mokena’s assistant village administrator. “People are not beating down our doors, so to speak, saying we need a quiet zone. But we try to take resident concerns into consideration.”

Traffic, trains, the construction crew hammering first thing in the morning, and the neighbor with the weed whacker have all created their fair share of noise irritation.

But what’s noise to some people may barely register in the background to others.

Noise measurements

Stan Roller, a Naperville acoustical consultant, has found that noise tolerance is largely a personal thing. Some people live comfortably in city apartments surrounded by trains, traffic and people, while others living in an isolated country home are kept awake at night by crickets.

Noise is measured in decibels, which Roller compared to air temperature. Generally, a level of 70 decibels is comfortable, just as 70 degrees is a pleasant temperature. When noise reaches 100 decibels, it hurts.

A soft whisper reaches about 30 decibels, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing. A normal conversation hits 60 decibels, a ringing telephone 80 decibels, a leaf blower 110 decibels and a balloon pop 157 decibels.

“It’s a tolerance level,” Roller said. “Some people have no tolerance of (noise) whatsoever. Most of the time, when the noise interferes with what they’re doing, then it becomes really aggravating to people.”

But for the most part, background noise such as traffic or even, for some people, airplanes soaring overhead, is not what bugs us.

A pure tone, a sound that stays in a narrow frequency range, is the most irritating — like the hum from a fluorescent light fixture. Noise that covers a range of frequencies, such as ocean waves or wind blowing through dried leaves, isn’t usually annoying.

“If you went out to an expressway and you listened to that sound, even though it’s loud and you can’t carry on a conversation, it’s not particularly aggravating to you,” Roller said. “People will not tolerate a pure tone, where if you had a flute and you played C. That’s like a pure tone, a very narrow frequency.”

State, local responsibility

Search for “noise pollution” on the Internet, and you’ll get more than a million Web sites — many of them run by anti-noise groups.

Advocates for quietude say excessive noise can damage hearing, disrupt sleep, induce stress and generally lower our quality of life. Noise tops the list of complaints people raise about their neighborhoods, said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, a national organization based in Indianapolis,

“I just think that noise is horrible. It makes it difficult for you to think, difficult for you to sleep, difficult for you to enjoy your life,” he said. “Part of the American dream is a nice, peaceful, quiet neighborhood. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Isn’t that why people move to the suburbs or the country?”

The organization’s goal is the same as that of most anti-noise groups, to raise awareness and influence tighter government restrictions on noise.

There are no blanket policies on noise at the national level. There was an Office of Noise Abatement and Control within the Environmental Protection Agency, but it was phased out in the early 1980s when federal officials decided noise was best regulated on a local level.

The state regulates traffic noise, conducting studies on new highways and building sound barriers where necessary. And towns come up with their own regulations, often after residents lodge noise complaints.

The laws vary from town to town. The city of Joliet, for example, does not set decibel levels in its noise ordinances. The city has two — one regulating car stereos (they can’t be audible from 75 feet away) and one prohibiting “loud, unnecessary noises.”

The village of Plainfield has a noise ordinance that sets specific decibel levels which are considered “reasonable” for residential, commercial and industrial areas.

Code enforcement officers usually respond to complaints with a request to keep it down, but will use a noise meter to check the decibel level if necessary.

Most of the time, the meter shows the noise annoying people is within the limits set by the ordinance, said Cmdr. John Konopek of the Plainfield police.

“Not that often is the complaint justified,” he said.

The decibel limits help with regulation, considering the subjective nature of noise complaints. “One person can say this is loud, another person can say this is not loud,” he said