by Chris Bynum

New Orleans Times-Picayune

April 24, 2003

Now hear this: Our increasingly noisy world is causing sleep deprivation, depression and hearing loss in adults, and may be impairing children’s learning.

You’re sitting in your car at a traffic light, radio tuned to the easy listening station as you shift into “unwind” at the end of the workday. Suddenly your vehicle is vibrating from a deafening sound. Has a helicopter pilot mistaken your roof rack for a landing pad? Your shoulders immediately rise to meet the lobes of your ears. Your heart pounds. And then you turn to see if your partners in traffic have also hunched down in survival mode.

Then you see him. The bass addict in the booming car next to you is groovin’ to the thundering reverberations. One man’s music is another’s misery.

Enter Ted Rueter. No, he’s not the fellow conducting the car concert next to you. He is the sound of one hand clapping.

The founder of Noise Free America, Rueter is a mild-mannered political science professor at Tulane University. He walks softly and carries a loud message on low volume. Rueter gets riled up about boom cars and leaf blowers. He’s concerned about your health — and the quality of your environment.

Two years ago, while a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, Rueter taught a class on political advocacy and activism. In the process of teaching students techniques to bring about social change, he tuned into the fact that he found Los Angeles “irritatingly noisy.”

He was not alone. Fourteen of his students joined the organization he subsequently founded. Today, Noise Free America, a national lobbying group, has 27 local chapters in 20 states, yet a roster of only a few hundred members. But the organization, Rueter defends, is still in its infancy.

Noise, says the anti-noise crusader, lowers sex drive, causes sleep deprivation and depression, “harms cognitive development and language acquisition” and results in hearing loss. Some 28 million Americans have hearing loss, and 10 percent of those cases, Rueter says, are noise-induced.

Just ask former President Bill Clinton, who now wears hearing aids and attributes some of his hearing loss to exposure to loud noise as a member of the Woodstock generation.

Anything above 85 decibels is considered harmful to your hearing. (A leaf blower can produce 110 decibels, a rock concert 120.) But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, says Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist who serves on New York City’s Mayor’s Council for the Environment (she’s served four mayors on this issue) and is a consultant to Noise Free America.

Loud noise causes our hearts to beat faster, our pulse rates to go up, our digestive juices to slow down, our blood pressure to rise — “all related to the stress of noise,” Bronzaft says by telephone from her home in Manhattan, where children are playing gleefully and audibly in the background.

With blaring public address systems in airports (not to mention the incessant overhead traffic), 24-hour video arcades, pumped-up movie trailers at the theater and heavy truck traffic on interstate highways, many people no longer distinguish sound from noise.

Bronzaft’s research supports Rueter’s statement that noise affects a child’s learning potential. She has such a concern for children growing up in a noisy world that she wrote “Listen to the Raindrops,” a children’s book that uses the character of a mouse to “teach children the beauty of sound and the harshness of noise.”

“Harsh” is how Rueter describes leaf blowers. He first heard the time-saving high-powered garden tool in 1991, but he didn’t know what a “boom car” was until two years ago.

Boom cars come with high-tech, high-volume sound systems that produce as many as 175 decibels, says Rueter.

Then there’s the aggression factor. The advertising tactics behind such sound systems, Rueter says, promote hostility. He keeps examples of such ads in a scrapbook for his organization:

— “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but these subs and woofers will rip your head off.”

— “Put the over-40 set in cardiac arrest.”

— “Disturb the peace.”

— “Shake seats and annoy neighbors.”

Indeed, the No. 1 complaint Americans have about their neighborhoods is noise, according to the Census Bureau. Noise levels, says Rueter, have risen six-fold in major metropolitan areas in the past 15 years, and he blames automobiles with high-volume sound systems as the main source.

But the targets of Noise Free America are not only sound systems and high-tech garden tools. Concerns range from Jet Skis to barking dogs to car alarms to cell phones and include the time of day that the noise level increases.

“Decibels may be a measurement, but time is just as important an issue,” says Rueter. Window-rattling noise, for instance, in the middle of the night or heavy-machine construction that begins too early in the morning is considered intrusive by most sleep-abiding citizens.

“Why can’t people comprehend,” Bronzaft says, “that their noise can affect other people? Because people think in terms of their own rights. But with rights come responsibility. It’s what (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau called The Social Contract. Respecting each other’s rights.

“But we have to teach people. And that’s where we fail,” says Bronzaft, who came to New Orleans eight years ago to act as a consultant regarding a conflict between Jackson Square musicians and Pontalba apartment residents.

“A television or stereo, for instance, is not at fault. The human is.”

In her job, Bronzaft handles phone calls from New York City residents who say their quality of life has been diminished by noise.

One might be a woman who simply cannot function in her daily routine due to a neighbor who plays her television too loudly. Then there’s the woman living near an airport who calls Bronzaft from her closet in order to be heard on the phone. In the latter case, the culprit grew through progress. Transportation is a business, not just one inconsiderate person.

“Noise is unwanted sound. It intrudes on daily activities and affects sleep and rest. And it is uncontrollable. And that is the core of the stress that comes with noise . . . to feel that your life is out of control,” Bronzaft says.

“Good health means decent quality of life. With that definition, noise is really harmful because it doesn’t allow us to carry out activities that bring us joy and pleasure.”

Neither Rueter nor Bronzaft is campaigning for a world where people listen for pins to drop.

But due to open work environments, loud computer games, booming cars, high traffic loads and noisy restaurants, the members of Noise Free America say, we are becoming a nation oblivious to noise while suffering the consequences.

“One in eight children between the ages of 6 and 19 is suffering from noise-induced hearing loss,” wrote Bronzaft in an article for Noise Free America, citing 2001 findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She urges parents to check the headsets their children wear, to think twice about the noisy toys they purchase and to pay attention to the noise that surrounds their children daily.

And when it comes to overall health for anyone at any age, the noise-fighters say, there’s another reason all of us ask for a little peace and quiet now and then.

“It soothes our souls,” Bronzaft says, “and our spirits.”

Health and fitness writer Chris Bynum can be reached at [email protected] or at (504) 826-3458.

This article was also published in:

* The Ann Arbor News
* The Cleveland Plain Dealer
* The Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican
* The Staten Island Advoacte
* The St. Paul Pioneer Press