Do You Remember Your Ma Asking Shouting “It’s so noisy I can’t hear myself think”
The title of this column was an oft-repeated complaint my mother would make to me when friends and I would become a little out of bounds in our playful fun. Looking back, as a single child, growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, our household was a relatively quiet one. I was reminded of her remark recently when visiting a new, local restaurant on Friday evening where I was enveloped in a constant din of noise; even after asking for a “quiet table.” The veal dish was very good but I probably won’t go back and it started me thinking about noise levels, even in our suburban area.
The booming population growth along with the proliferation of electronic gadgets such as boom boxes and car stereos, as well as more automobiles, trains, buses, motorcycles and aircraft has resulted in our being constantly surrounded by noise; even our household tools like dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers and leaf blowers add to the din. Sound intensity is measured in decibels; the unit A-weighted dBA is how humans hear a given sound. Zero dBA is the point at which a person begins to hear sound. A busy freeway at 50 feet away is 80dBA and even brief exposure to sound levels exceeding 120dBA can actually cause physical pain.
Studies have shown that the constant roar of jet aircraft can cause higher blood pressure, boost stress levels and even affect learning abilities. Other studies reveal that places that are the quietest are the healthiest.
The city of Amsterdam, after doing research on noise pollution, created quiet, outdoor spaces in which to pause and relax in an urban environment. As long as 15 years ago, the World Health Organization stated that increasing worldwide noise levels were the most prevalent and irreversible occupational hazard resulting in hearing loss. According to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, the U.S. has only 12 remaining truly “quiet places,” defined as somewhere you can go for at least 15 minutes without hearing artificial sound at dawn, the hour when sound travels the farthest. While there are preserves created to protect rivers and forests, not one place on Earth is set off-limits to noise pollution. Before there is an extinction of quiet, Mr. Hempton suggests we write to our senators and ask them to preserve natural “soundscape” by supporting legislation to restrict air traffic over wilderness areas.
Our acute hearing developed as an early warning system but even when people remain asleep, noise causes blood pressure spikes and the release of stress hormones; it affects us psychologically even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. We may or may not be aware of low-level TV and cell phone conversations in almost every public space but they affect our ability to indulge in quiet contemplation; a necessary practice for both spiritual and intellectual growth.
Despite living on the top floor of an apartment building one block away from the Branford Green, I am disturbed by the loud music from speakers on acoustical steroids when they have their summer jazz concerts. Perhaps I should emulate the Japanese and start wearing ear plugs. On second thought, I prefer the solution of Les Bloomberg, who started the Noise Pollution Clearing House in Montpelier, Vermont. Constantly bothered by street sweepers at night, his complaints fell on “deaf ears” until he finally got the home phone numbers of city officials and called them at night when he was awakened by the sweepers. The result? Streets in the town of Montpelier are now cleaned during the day and Les sleeps soundly at night. Have a quietly happy Memorial Day, everyone.