by Ted Rueter

Carbusters: Journal of the Carfree Movement

February 1, 2009

It is plain as daylight that excessive noise–whether caused by cars or not–poses a serious health risk for humans, and is reason enough to discourage the use of automobiles. But what exactly are the health impacts of the cacophony of a thousand raging motors in a city, or of a passing “boom car” that can “shake the living and wake the dead”? Carbusters decided to go in-depth on this buzzing issue and asked Ted Rueter from Noise Free America to add a clear voice to the tumultuous din.

Noise does a body bad. Excessive noise has been linked to hearing loss, tinnitus, sleep deprivation, cardiovascular disturbances, mental health impairment, impaired task performance, aggressive behavior, and chronic fatigue. And while its effects have been studied extensively, noise levels throughout the world are growing at alarming levels.

Major Causes of Noise Pollution

Noise levels greater than 80 decibels (dB) are considered potentially hazardous. Increasingly, everyday sounds approach or exceed this level. For example, a vacuum cleaner is around 70 dB. An alarm clock can emit 80 dB. Lawnmowers, shop tools, truck traffic and subways approach 90 dB. Snowmobiles and chainsaws are around 100 dB, while model airplanes can exceed 110 dB. Physically painful noise includes car stereos at 140 dB, a jackhammer at 130 dB, and the peak of a rock concert at 150 dB. Other sources of noise between 90 and 140 dB include motorcycles, firearms, firecrackers, headset listening systems, tractors, garbage disposals, blenders, and noisy toys.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans are exposed to harmful levels of noise in their jobs every day–especially fire fighters, disc jockeys, subway workers, construction workers, musicians, landscapers, and factory workers. The US Environmental Protection Agency concludes that more than 130 million Americans live in areas with dangerous high levels of noise. Meanwhile, continued exposure to noise of greater than 85 dB may cause gradual but permanent damage to hearing.

What’s the Buzz About?

Excessive noise can also cause tinnitus–a ringing in the ears that may sound like whining, buzzing, humming, or whistling. Some tinnitus victims have been led to suicide because of the extreme, constant irritation. Noise is also a major cause of sleep deprivation, which can result in obesity, depression, diabetes, lowered intellectual achievement, and cardiovascular disease. Every person’s productivity, performance, and emotional well-being is linked with getting good sleep.

In addition, a growing body of evidence confirms that noise pollution has both temporary and permanent effects on the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems. According to RN Lois Goines and Dr. Louis Hagler, “it has been postulated that noise acts as a non-specific biologic stressor eliciting reactions that prepare the body for a fight or flight response. For this reason, noise can trigger both endocrine and autonomic system responses that affect the cardivoascular system and thus may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

While noise is not a major cause of mental illness, it does appear to accelerate and worsen its development. Goines and Hagler states that noise pollution may cause or contribute to “anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headache, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, change in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis, hysteria, and psychosis.”

Less Education, More Violence

Noise pollution has a clear effect on cognitive task performance: decreasing motivation, increasing errors, and impairing performance at work and school. Noise strongly affects memory, problem-solving, and reading attention. Cognitive and language development, as well as reading achievement, are lessened in noisy homes. One study compared the effect of noise upon the test results of students in the same school. Half the students were in classrooms abutting a railroad track; the other half were not. Students in the quiet classrooms performed much better.

Noise levels above 80 dB are also associated with an increase in aggressive behavior. Numerous scientific studies indicate that noise may trigger unfriendliness, social disengagement, anger, dissatisfaction, disappointment, depression, anxiety, distraction, and agitation. Noise can lead to a sense of helplessness. Noise-related agitation has been the cause of shootings, stabbings, and murder.

The Last Bell

The adverse social, physiological, and psychological effects of noise pollution have been well studied. What remains to be done is to increase awareness on the issue and work to create an environment which recognizes the inherent human need for peace and quiet.

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You Deserve a Beating…

“Boom cars” are automobiles equipped with extremely powerful stereo systems that crank out as much as 1,000 watts of pure hell. Growing out of rap culture, they were primarily used by neighborhood drug dealers who wanted to alert their customers that they were in the area.

They were later popularized by music videos and have spread like a virus. Cunning advertisements target young males with the repeated idea that girls like guys who drive such machines; sexist themes in boom car ads are extremely common. Anti-social behavior also was heavily encouraged, with the aggressive, constant pounding and thumping from boom cars presented as a “cool” thing.

Boom cars lie at the core of an anti-social subculture and are a growing public nuisance. Meanwhile, the noise menace is expanding in more “mainstream” areas: loud car stereos have also become standard equipment on some Ford and Nissan models.