by Broderick Perkins
December 15, 2006
Sick of noise?
That’s not surprising.
Noise — unwanted, disturbing sound — can make you sick.
Noise is the No. 1 neighborhood complaint in America’s cities, as more people live in closer proximity in condominiums, apartments, homes on smaller lots and nearby freeways and rail lines.
It’s the leading cause, worldwide, of disabling and irreversible hearing difficulties. Noise impairs sleep, affects sexual activity, degrades speech communication, reduces concentration and learning, increases anxiety, stress, headaches, hypertension and other risk factors for cardiac disease.
Excessive noise during pregnancy can even influence embryonic development according to, Dr. Luther Terry, former U.S. Surgeon General.
Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University in San Jose California recently researched the dangers of din for a Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA documentary.
Here’s what he found.
“Noise is not just an annoyance,” says environmental psychologist and former consultant to the New York Transit Authority.
“It’s a health hazard.”
And it’s getting worse all the time. In the last 15 years, noise levels in U.S. cities have risen six-fold. The rate of hearing-test failures among New Yorkers in their 60s and 70s nearly doubled between 1980 and 1998.
According to the U. S. Census Bureau, noise has become the No. 1 neighborhood complaint in America’s cities.
The sense of calm and serenity, where a person can sit at home and read, talk quietly, listen to music, watch a child color or play with blocks, is an increasingly elusive experience, thanks to noise pollution, Trounstine found.
How loud is it?
“Sound is an immersive experience,” says Indianapolis sound researcher Elliott Berger, a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America. “You are in the sound field and the sound field is within you.”
As if leaf blowers, jack hammers, car alarms, freeways, airplanes and barking dogs weren’t enough to set teeth on edge as people try to live quietly in their homes, the number of home theaters, with bone-rattling woofers and ear-splitting tweeters, is literally exploding.
Trounstine says that sets up maddening conflicts between those who want bigger, better more penetrating sound and those next door, above or below or even elsewhere in the home, who just want a little peace and tranquility.
“We’re reproducing the theater experience in homes today,” says Utz Baldwin, a Houston electronic system contractor and vice president of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA).
“With larger screens, center and rear channels, with new technology and logic tied into the infrastructure, we’re concerned about keeping the sound in the room, keeping outside sound out and managing the sound within the room.”
In 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau found 11.6 million households that reported bothersome street or traffic noise. An additional 4.5 million said the racket they lived with made them want to move.
The holy grail of modern urban planning — “high density housing along transportation corridors” — can be a double whammy when it comes to noise: more people living closer together, hearing everything in the neighboring unit, compounded by the sounds of the nearby freeway or rail line.
There is even a medical term for the whole-body pathology caused by excessive exposure to low-frequency noise: Vibroacoustic Disease (VAD).
There’s no question: noise is a problem.
Quiet is the solution, says Trounstine.
“Most people don’t think of quiet as a noun, a thing. It’s more common to think of quiet as an adjective — still, calm, motionless, not making noise — describing something else, like a quiet place or a quiet evening at home,” Trounstine said.
Increasingly, however, homeowners, builders, city planners and others are thinking of quiet as something that can be obtained. Something that does not have to be sacrificed in the face of progress.
“Individuals who live in large urban centers have been told that they have to adapt to the noise — this is the price they have to pay for choosing to live in an urban environment,” Arline L. Bronzaft writes in Rehabilitation Quarterly.
“However, even in metropolitan cities individuals do not have to be constantly bombarded by noise.”
Kevin Surace, is president and CEO of Quiet Solution, a venture-capital-funded Silicon Valley company that applies a high-tech approach to creating quieter homes and work spaces.
He says, “It’s easy, reliable and cost-effective to solve the noise problem.”
That’s possible only if people recognize they don’t have to accept ceaseless, unwanted noise. And it’s not just homeowners who need to understand that the challenge can be met.
“We have to educate architects, designers and builders that these are things they have to consider at the outset, when they are designing homes,” says Baldwin, chairman of CEDIA’s industry outreach committee.
“Look,” adds Berger. “One person’s noise can be another person’s acoustical perfume. People on military bases will tell you that aircraft flyover noise is the sound of freedom.”
Most people living near airports or along freeways or commuter train routes, however, would prefer their freedom a bit less noisy.
Trounstine says before buyers make the plunge more of them ask if noise was considered and whether sound-quieting materials were used in construction. Likewise, people who already have homes and who realize that they are subjected to intrusive sound are searching for ways to bring quiet into their lives.
To meet the challenge, companies like Quiet Solution, Owens Corning, CertainTeed, Temple-Inland, Georgia-Pacific and others, have developed products that reduce sound that would otherwise penetrate windows, doors, ceilings, floors and walls.
Certain-Teed, for example, manufactures a light-density fiberglass insulation batt that is installed between studs. Georgia Pacific makes a low-density product that is installed between studs and drywall. Temple-Inland makes a sound-deadening fiberboard. And Owens Corning produces a fabric system to envelope rooms.
Quiet Solution has developed some of the simplest and most cost effective products. For example, they make a wallboard that looks and is used like regular drywall, but includes a viscoelastic polymer — what they call their “special sauce.”
Simply put, this treatment converts acoustic energy to heat energy, which people can’t hear.
“It’s a revolutionary, high-tech, sound-damping product masquerading as just another building material,” says Surace, the Quiet Solution CEO. “It’s not fancy. It doesn’t call attention to itself. It just works.”
It’s can be used in both new construction or to retrofit existing walls without demolition. For example, a standard sheet of 5/8-inch gypsum board added to a typical drywall-and-stud wall reduces sound coming through the wall by about 2 decibels.
But one sheet of engineered QuietRock added to a typical wall cuts the sound coming through the wall by about 20 decibels — a 75 percent reduction in sound.
In new construction, one sheet of 5/8-inch QuietRock 525 has the same noise reduction effect of eight sheets of standard drywall.
“In multifamily construction or hotel construction, the major complaint is, ‘I hear my neighbor.’ And the builder says, ‘Well, I already put in a second layer of drywall,’ or they use old technology, like a mass-loaded vinyl barrier or a resilient channel,” says Surace.
“But the old approaches are going the way of vinyl records, because they can’t reliably give the customer the noise reduction they need.”
Quiet Solution also manufactures floor and ceiling systems and windows — all designed with the company’s patented “special sauce” to dampen noise.
This is the kind of leap forward in noise reduction that Berger brought forth in 1972, when his Aearo Company invented yellow foam earplugs to control what he calls “the most pervasive environmental pollutant on the planet” — noise.
“There’s hardly any place you can go where it’s quiet,” says Ted Rueter of Beloit, Wisconsin, founder of Noise Free America, an anti-noise activist group with chapters throughout the United States. But there ought to be.
And there can be.
While groups like Noise Free America and others seek to combat environmental sources of noise, for the individual there are really only two choices to reduce the impact of unwanted sound.
“When you need a quiet space you can use hearing protection or you can build a very quiet home,” said Berger.
Those approaches are well worth the effort.
“Quiet,” says, Bronzaft “is not only good for the body, it’s good for the soul.”