Industrial Noise and Fumes, & their Effects on Health

Susan Cooke

This is an updated and clarified post and reminder of how we’re affected by industrial noise, how we can help others by limiting the noise we make, and how we can begin to persuade government and business to help us find more quiet in our daily lives in the city, including quiet in the few bits of nature we can find there. Research increasingly shows we’re starved for time in nature without industrial noise, and that loud noise in general is decreasing wellbeing and adding to illness.

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Do you ever find that there’s no place near home where you can experience even a few minutes of quiet time in some green space like a garden or park, or even your own yard, porch, or balcony (emphasis on the word quiet)? How many times can you go outside or just open your windows on a lovely day without hearing leaf-blowers, giant lawnmowers, diesel trucks, jets overhead, or construction equipment? Do you go into your garden if you have one, to take a moment to smell the roses or some other flowers you planted, or just to hear the breeze rustling the leaves, and get a lungful of nearby leaf-blower or diesel exhaust along with an earful of roaring noise? Do you get blasted with loud sound systems or TVs in every eatery or store you enter? Do you ever say “enough” to the ever-increasing noise assaults of all kinds? Did you know that besides the stress you feel, and even if you don’t feel it as much as many others do, that so much exposure to all these loud sound assaults, and in the case of engines, their exhaust, is harmful to your health?  

In my town, a small city next to Boston, you can take what you might hope will be a quiet walk as late as 6 or 7 pm and still be forced to hear or inhale, on street after street, noise and fumes from leaf-blowers, giant lawnmowers, weed-whackers, power saws, sanders, stone-cutting equipment, and more. When you add this to the many loud and smelly (and unhealthy for you and the planet) oil trucks, huge UPS trucks, and souped-up motorcycles, you can see you’re living in a chronically toxic atmosphere humans were never exposed to for most of their existence but now experience constantly. 

Our nervous systems haven’t changed much and they don’t react well to this onslaught. While many Americans suffer from hearing such noises most of the day and into the evening, these practices at these hours are illegal in many cities in the world. Noise laws are generally lax in the U.S. In my town and from my research, in many others, the loose laws are clearly designed to make landscape and construction businesses happy, along with a few residents on every street who are in love with their own private stash of power equipment, all of whom are seemingly unable to consider how anyone else may be very stressed by the noise and fumes or even by the effects on their own health.

There is similar lack of empathy in legions of restaurant and store owners who now regularly torture many of their customers (and employees) with sound often loud enough to damage hearing, cause headaches, and raise blood pressure for hours after the exposure. I’ve noticed that the sound systems tend to become louder every year, unless many people request that the volume be turned down (and mostly that doesn’t happen because often such requests are met with surprising hostility). I and many people I’ve interviewed are finding we’re more and more uncomfortable everywhere we go. Lately the music has moved from fairly annoying to sounding like World War III in some of these places, starting as early as 6:30 in the morning when customers’ eyes are barely open. My own experience has convinced me that torture by noise (yes, noise has been used to torture) must be quite effective.

In many American cities, attempts by residents to ease their noise burden are met with passivity, stubborn resistance, or even rage. Heads in the sand, oblivious to the pleas by suffering residents, many city, state, and national leaders put noise on the bottom of their priority lists. This is hard to understand when healthcare costs are so high and the effects on health of noise and fumes are so egregious. In my town loud noise is allowed 7 am to 7 pm on weekdays, and is hardly better on weekends (including Sundays)—8 am to 7 pm.

This kind of schedule would astound people in some other countries whose governments are sensitive to this problem. In Germany, making others suffer with your noise is understood to be rude and to cause stress. As you’ll see below, German cities and some other European ones such as Stockholm are some of the quietest in the world. There is more awareness of the bad health effects of noise in European countries today than in most others worldwide. American cities temporarily became concerned around the 1970’s, but despite more noise than ever now, they’re now less willing to take action than in the 70’s. (But the good news is there’s evidence that’s slowly changing.) To read more about these noise issues, see the wonderfully comprehensive article in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noise_regulation . 

The top five quietest cities in the world are all in Europe: Zurich, Vienna, Oslo, Munich, and Stockholm, according to the World Economic Forum. In addition to Munich, three other German cities are in the quietest top 10: Dusseldorf, Hamburg, and Cologne. The criteria used included measuring the sound of music and TVs in restaurants and shops along with all the aforementioned types of industrial noise. The site says the world’s noisiest city is Delhi, followed by Cairo, Mumbai, Istanbul, and Beijing. The only US city among the quietest on this particular list is Portland (the list doesn’t say whether that’s the one in Oregon or Maine but I’m assuming Oregon). Some of the U.S. cities In the moderate range are New York, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, Birmingham, and San Francisco. I think New York may have managed to get a moderate position partly because of Central Park, and Battery Park City, a planned community that’s so uniquely separate from the city that you can be close in, yet experience quiet and lots of nature in that park and along the water. To see the chart of noisiest and quietest cities go to ttps://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/03/these-are-the-cities-with-the-worst-noise-pollution/

For a more personal viewpoint of one woman who traveled to a number of US cities in search of quiet places to take a vacation, blogger Jessie of Jessie on a Journey lists as the quietest of those she visited Durham, NC, Cape Cod, MA (not actually a city ), Hartford, CT, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Des Moines, Iowa. She lists the loudest as New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago. (See Jessie on a Journey at (https://jessieonajourney.com/usa-quiet-and-loud-cities/.)

In any case it’s likely that If you do live in a U.S. city of any size you often suffer from unwanted, disturbing noise. Noise complaints and new organizations formed to fight noise are common in many U.S cities now. It’s sad and in fact I believe unethical that citizens have to fight so hard for what it seems should be their right not to be assaulted by others’ health-damaging noise, especially since, as you’ll see in my next noise post, so much of it is unnecessary.

So what’s the noise really doing to us? At the web site The Network for Public Health Law, you can see a litany of different types of noise complaints from around the country. The first sentence in its intro is telling: “Community noise can be detrimental to public health. Adverse health effects include cardiovascular problems and learning deficits. Studies indicate the incidence of heart disease increases as community noise levels rise above 40 decibels (db).” And, “Noise is the subject of tens of thousands of complaints to government and citizens, who often cite noise as a significant quality of life issue.” I found it intriguing to learn on the site that noise complaints have been with us for centuries. In sixth century BC a Greek council created a sort of zoning ordinance that required noisy tradesmen to do all their work outside of city walls. Sounds good to me. For more go to https://www.networkforphl.org/_asset/3rvh8q/5-23-13Survey_of_noise_activity_4.pdf . 

Besides the physical effects mentioned above, noise is having significant effects on mental health. Many people  feel isolated and even lonely now (who did not before) because they simply can’t go into most stores or restaurants or even coffee shops they used to enjoy. This is also happening to many UK citizens who can no longer go to the pubs that used to be their main venue for socializing. This is bad news since loneliness is such a problem there that there’s now a Minister of Loneliness. It’s a growing problem here too, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ve met others who feel hopeless about escaping noise, and then depressed (hopelessness often leads to depression). They see they have little control over their quality of life, since it’s scary and often useless to ask for noise relief and it’s lonely when you’re shut out of places you used to enjoy and that helped you get out into the world. Humans are social creatures and unwanted isolation is known by researchers to be extremely bad for mental and ultimately physical health.

So people now often find not only do they miss coffee shops where they used to see and meet many other people, but they no longer can find any peaceful place to have even a few minutes outside their own homes in nature, maybe just to sit on their own balconies or front steps. This is rarely possible from morning till night in more and more places. This is happening to people regardless of sex (noise is not just a “woman’s thing”, ethnicity, or occupation.

Such hopelessness was plain to see in my former neighbor, a U.S. Air Force jet fighter pilot who has flown missions in Afghanistan, and was working on a graduate degree when he was back in the states. He very much wanted and needed to have dinner at 5 or 6 with his young family on the balcony overlooking their small yard after grueling days at grad school. Yet this hero hardly ever could have this modest enough pleasure because of the chronic presence, even at that time of day, of the many yard work teams (often hired by absent landlords who don’t have to hear the noise) that descended on the neighborhood (and still do) almost every day because of our town’s cruelly lax noise laws. He would get depressed about this, and told me he felt hopeless because in the past his requests for relief were ignored. He and his family had lived in Germany for awhile and he said it was quieter there. He deserved better. He lives in another city now, and I hope for him and his family that it’s a quieter one.

To make matters worse, researchers say we desperately need more nature in our lives in order to thrive, yet most of us barely get a whiff of it compared to early humans who lived close to nature much of the time. Right now most nature we can find in the city and increasingly anywhere doesn’t promote wellbeing as it used to because it’s so often accompanied by industrial noise and fumes, loud car radios, and even loud people who shout at each other (when they used to just talk) and who shout on their phones on their porch or steps, ruining your own badly needed quiet time on your porch or steps. (Other writers have noted, as you may have, that Americans, at least lately, are just plain loud.) 

A typical event could go something like this: you do go outside for a few quite minutes (you hope) in nature if, say you have a garden or a nice yard with a few trees, and the neighbor drags out his leaf-blower. What can you do? Risk an enraged or even threatening response (this happened to my husband) or go back inside and shut all the windows.  I’m delighted to report that occasionally someone, such as another of our neighbors, tells us he had no idea the blower bothered people. He was kind and turned it off, for awhile anyway. But sadly, this response is rare.  

Let’s face facts. Researchers say we need relief from noise and we need more nature in order to thrive, yet in American cities today both are extremely hard to come by. Noise comes from all directions at increasing numbers of hours, noise that includes, besides construction, lawn equipment, and retail noise (noise inside stores and restaurants, who also sometimes blast it onto the streets), more and more jets and helicopters over our homes day and night, loud (and polluting) diesel trucks, and “modified” vehicles made artificially loud (illegal in many states but apparently hard to enforce).

A motorcycle and also one of the cars in my neighborhood both sound like the apocalypse when they go down our street. This problem too is common in many U.S. neighborhoods despite laws against it, laws that appear not to be very effective in many cases). In New Jersey alone in 2017, over 2800 summons had been issued for super-noisy vehicles just from January through September. For more, go to https://www.nj.com/traffic/index.ssf/2017/09/do_cops_actually_write_tickets_for_loud_exhaust_systems_we_checked.html .

Loud Noise is often Accompanied by Health Hazards

Besides leaf-blowers’ terrible noise, we see in a report sent by investigators to the Lincoln, MA Board of Health an array of scary components of their exhaust that anyone close to users will be breathing in, and that get into the soil and water. The report says these include the volatile organic compounds benzene, 1,3 butadiene, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde—all of which are labeled as HAPs or “Hazardous air pollutants,” that “can cause or may cause cancer and other serious health effects.” Then there are nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen carbon, and particulate matter, labeled by the report as carcinogenic and/or ozone-causing. The particulate matter is composed of a mix of acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil, and dust.

The report compares the effects on the environment of a Ford Raptor Truck’s and a leaf-blower’s hydrocarbon emissions: 30 minutes of running a leaf-blower with a 2-stroke engine equals a 3,900 mile drive in a Raptor. Comparing for non-methane hydrocarbons, the leaf-blower generates 23 times the carbon monoxide and about 300 times more hydrocarbons than the Raptor. The leaf-blower’s particulate matter alone can include animal fecal matter, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, allergens such as fungal spores and pollen, diesel soot, brake dust, rubber tire particles, and toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you’ll be breathing today as you tend your garden next to the yard using the lawn care team. Or, if you just walk by with your dog or your children, who breathe it too. It’s even harder on their ears and lungs than yours. The fumes and particles also hang out in the air for awhile, then settle into dust and any water that’s around. I’ve even seen workers blow dust and leaves or just plain dust from the yard they’re working on into the next yard (where children may play) or on the sidewalk where people walk with kids and dogs. In Harvard Square I recently saw over a period of several days that one worker regularly blew both dust and litter into water drains leading to Boston’s beloved Charles River (yes that’s illegal here). 

How you can Help Yourself & Others

Here’s more technical information you might want to add to the above Lincoln, MA report in order to understand and explain to your town council and local businesses the harmful effects of loud noise and of gas-powered equipment’s noise and fumes. Among comments on the pollution from yard equipment and other smaller gas-powered machinery from California Air Resources Board’s “Small Engine Fact Sheet” is yet another comparison of environmental effects of driving a vehicle with using this machinery, in this case both a lawnmower and a leaf-blower:

“Today, operating the best-selling commercial lawn mower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving the best-selling 2017 passenger car, a Toyota Camry, about 300 miles – approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. For the best-selling commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1100 miles, or approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.” (The Seattle Globalist, at http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2017/09/25/leaf-blowers-flagged-as-polluters-possible-health-threat/68802).

California has done better than many states in combatting noise or at least attempting to, with a number of cities there having completely banned gas-powered leaf-blowers. The Globalist writers say it still struggles against resistant tool companies (such as the big producer of gas-powered machinery Briggs & Stratton) in the state’s fight to protect workers and everyone else from the devastation to health and environment caused by this machinery. Yard workers themselves have complained of headaches, nausea, effects of hours of loud noise exposure that the CDC says will cause hearing loss without ear protection (and most don’t wear protection), and other health problems.

Despite the use of millions of these machines, there’s been relatively little testing, but even “improved” versions of them “still emit toxic contaminants such as carcinogenic benzene as well as surprisingly large amounts of other smog-forming chemicals.” Did you read that right? We’re talking about cancer-causing chemicals in the air here.

Highlighting the immediate medical dangers to us all, Jo Kay Ghosh, epidemiologist and health effects officer for the South Coast AirQuality Management District, a pollution control agency covering much of southern California (where there’s plenty of smog) says in the article “the smaller the particle, the deeper it can be inhaled into the lungs, and the more potential it has then to cause health problems” such as lung cancer, heart disease, asthma, and other respiratory ailments. She adds that ultra fine particles can even pass through cell membranes and slip into the bloodstream.

The writers say unpublished preliminary research by California regulators (to be followed with a more formal study) suggests that the equipment operators were exposed to at least 10 times more ultra fine particles than if they were standing beside a busy roadway. (They also mention a worker who suffered from migraines every day until he switched to a job where electric rather than gas-powered equipment was used.)

I recommend the Globalist article to help you understand and/or communicate the full impact of what these machines are doing to all of us, our pets, our kids, wildlife, and the planet. And yet the writers don’t have space to even begin to cover all the other gas-powered machines affecting our psyches and health besides gas-powered yard equipment, such as those in many gas-powered vehicles.

While many of us may have expected that gas-powered vehicles would have become illegal by now due to the obvious climate crisis we’re experiencing, not only has that not occurred, but there are in fact more and more of them including diesel engines (with their own uniquely dangerous exhaust) on our residential streets.  At least California is working hard to battle all small gas-powered motors including chain saws and other construction equipment that drive a lot of us crazy on residential streets. Later, after I’ve done more research, I hope to list some companies making cleaner, quieter equipment. I know they’re out there because there’s now a successful yard work company near me in Concord, MA using all-electric equipment.

Meanwhile I’ll be posting more on the effects on us of industrial noise and fumes, on extremely damaging-to-health sound systems in almost all retail stores and restaurants, and what we can do about these problems that add so much suffering to already-stressed Americans’ lives. These solutions include a number of quieter, cleaner-running machines you can find online right now.

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