NOISE PART II  Widespread Stress & Illness from Noise & How to Reduce it

Susan Cooke

Noise exposure has recently been called the new secondhand smoke. This post considers how we can use awareness of this issue to A) be kinder by reducing  our use of products that harm others’ wellbeing with loud noise (and often toxic fumes), and B) create laws that protect the public.

These changes would provide a new sense of peace in cities, encourage more people to go outside and garden, exercise, take more walks in their own neighborhoods, and benefit from the many ways nature contributes to calm and health.  Less noise and this increased time outdoors would also encourage a closer sense of community as people find they meet many more neighbors simply because people tend to meet outside more easily than if they all stay indoors. They meet when walking their dogs, seeing each other working in a garden or sitting on their front steps, and in other ways that make it  easy to say hello. A sense of community, more exercise outside, and more exposure to nature (nature without noise) is proven by research to improve wellbeing and reduce stress and illness, which helps to reduce the healthcare costs of stress-related Illnesses, and in some cases even to decrease crime.

This post is divided into the sections listed below:

1) Our Beginnings were Relatively Quiet   

2) Non-Natural Noise Begins to Play a Part in our Lives 

3) Noise Becomes a Regular Participant in Our Lives 

4) Noise Today

5) Government and Business Remain Remarkably Clueless 

6) Noises we Need to Decrease now to Reduce Stress & Illness 

7) What Else we can do 

8) Two Final Thoughts

 1  Our Beginnings  were Relatively Quiet

Imagine you’re an early human, it’s morning, and everyone’s busy searching for and preparing food for the day’s meals. You’re outside with the rest of the tribe, getting things done, enjoying  the sun’s warmth, the sight of plants and trees of many kinds and colors, and the sounds of birds singing and leaves rustling. Sometimes a wild animal roars in the distance or there’s a thunderclap but mostly those are the only loud or alarming sounds you hear. You’re fairly contented with your daily life. Today we know being outdoors in bright light helps protect health and mood, and researchers say that in many groups of early humans depression was rare or nonexistent. They add that the close sense of community was also key in preventing depression.

2  Non-Natural Noise Begins to Play a Part in our Lives

Now imagine it’s later in history, in a small city. At least in times of peace you and your family enjoy few intrusions of alarming noise. You’re mostly able to open windows, work in your small garden if you have one, or walk in a nearby meadow or park, and enjoy nature and sunlight as did early humans. The most disruptive sounds you may hear are horses and their carts clattering along the streets. Sometimes, more thoughtful city leaders realize that when this noise occurs at night it keeps people awake. So they’ve established quiet times, barring horses and wagons from the streets when most people are sleeping. 

3  Noise Becomes a Major Participant in our Lives

Now we’re in a bigger city during the rise of industry. Loud, non-natural noises are common along with less healthy air. Living or working near these new businesses becomes stressful both mentally and physically, and in the city quiet time in nature is almost nonexistent unless you’re lucky enough to have a small park nearby and don’t live close to a big factory, or are wealthy enough to live in city areas removed from most industrial noise.

Unless you’re rich your life is difficult anyway due to long working hours in or near these unpleasant places, so the lack of stress relief when you get off work doesn’t help. Not only are there few chances to experience nature, it’s hard to even sit next to an open window because you’re surrounded by dirty air and loud noise from ever more crowded streets or the factory near your own street. Noise from construction, streetcars, trains, and more street traffic is increasing. You don’t enjoy walking around the neighborhood much, so you often feel closed in, sometimes suffocated. It’s stressful to even walk to a pub or tea shop to see friends, or to a friend’s home, so if you’re quite sensitive to smog and noise you may not be with friends as much as you’d like. It’s not great for your mood or health to be more isolated, or to live with so little  nature in your life, or exercise outside.  

4  Noise Today

We jump to a 21st century city, with industrial noise and fumes a constant presence, along with increasing stress for millions displaced by war, severe poverty, or climate-change-caused disasters, thousands suffering from effects of gun violence and terrorism, and everyone worrying about the constant threat of nuclear war. Yet more stress is piled on now because we at this moment live in a social atmosphere filled with the most hate and vitriol we’ve seen in decades. To top it off, we Americans and those who emulate us work ourselves nearly to death in an attempt to quickly find “success.” These stresses mount as we become more isolated as a country, and we also as individuals, lacking the social support and sense of security from which we once benefitted so much.  We live in a more chronically-alarmed state than ever.  

If we acknowledge the stress we’re under as a people, we can see we need to do whatever is possible now to reduce stress and have a much better chance to stay well. There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but we can do a great deal to reduce noise as individuals and also with help from business and government.  There are things that can be done to reduce the constant attacks on us from noise from lawn care equipment, increasing numbers of planes and helicopters flying at all hours over homes, parks, and other places we used to relax, speeding delivery trucks, artificially-loud motors in cars and motorcycles, people playing radios super-loud outside others’ homes or near their open windows, and people shouting at each other and on their phones wherever they happen to be (including right next to others who don’t even know them). The upshot is either individuals or businesses with loud equipment are constantly invading each others’ desperately needed peace and calm with our noise, and mostly we feel we have no defense. (FYI, feeling helpless and/or hopeless is a major cause of depression.)

5  Government and Business Remain Remarkably Clueless

Despite our being wired as we were in earliest times, this assault of loud noise, accompanied by pollution, has not been viewed by most business owners and government leaders as the enormous health problem it is. It’s been low or nonexistent on their priority lists. But the problem and its destructive effects are now so severe that many agencies and researchers are worried. In a recent Washington Post article, one expert who pushed for strict noise laws in Indiana calls noise “the new secondhand smoke” *(see link below). And there’s this quote from The Quiet Coalition (article link is just below the quote): 

Like secondhand smoke, excessive environmental noise involuntarily exposes the public to conditions that increase their risk of disease. In the case of secondhand smoke, the preponderance of scientific evidence linking it to cancer finally convinced decision makers to take action. 

https://thequietcoalition.org/health-and-legal-professionals-declare-noise-is-the-new-secondhand-smoke/)

One reason this government and business ignorance is surprising is that health and mood problems cost money, and the country is always in a dither about how to pay for healthcare. Stopping most noise and pollution onslaughts is simply Prevention 101. It’s amazing we haven’t figured this out as a nation, but it is time to take action.

If we had heeded science’s warnings about global warming much sooner, we would be benefitting from much less loud noise and pollution due just to having eliminated most gas and diesel power (for example). With Congress’s recent report on what’s coming in climate change this should happen immediately, with focus of course on supporting those people whose jobs are in the industries involving coal and gas and any other businesses  dependent on the older, now-destructive ways of providing fuel.  Instead of complaining  about how it will hurt those people, we need to step up and pay their salaries while educating them for new jobs and providing those jobs in areas where they’re needed including infrastructure and new cleaner fuel technologies.. While doing this we must take care of their anxiety and stress and avoid destroying their communities, to prevent an enormous load of post-traumatic stress that would be unconscionable. They need to be supported where they live now and in moving to a new area if they choose to do that. Yes it’s a big hassle and expense but nothing compared to the expense of not doing everything in our power to stop global warming now. 

It’s irresponsible and I have to say criminal at this point not to take action against global warming. No government or leader has the right to help destroy the planet and all people and animals that live in it.  Doing it in a cooperative way with the rest of the world would likely be the fastest and most successful way to do it. But one way or another we must do it or we’ll be known and hated as the most immoral and selfish generation that ever lived.

If we move now onto this path one extremely healthy side effect will be that we can all at least go outside our houses to tend a garden or  sit on our front steps to look at a tree without being blasted by roaring machines and dirty air (not to mention the particulates in leaf-blower exhaust known to cause cancer). More of us would take more walks around the neighborhood in bright outdoor light, meeting those neighbors,  enjoying that sense of community Americans so lack today, and actually seeing, hearing, and benefitting from nature without loud machinery and fumes that also aggravate asthma. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles with quiet electric engines will replace the roar and pollution of diesel trucks, gas-powered car,s and motorcycles.

We can help ourselves as individuals if we encourage–or should I say push –our leaders to begin a program of replacing gas and diesel engines, to use mostly electric and battery-powered vehicles of all kinds–and use the quietest ones of those–and require all gas-powered lawn care equipment to be replaced with battery or electric-powered and quieter machinery. This has already been accomplished in some cities, and some have helpful trade-in programs so you can bring in your old leaf-blower for a clean, quieter one. We can ask our cities to try such a program. Urge all to go for the quietest of the electric and battery-powered machines, since some are quieter than others.

We should also encourage government to place noise limits on manufacturers of everyday equipment people use often, such as hair dryers and vacuum cleaners, whose use many times per week or per day adds to the total hearing loss researchers say is becoming epidemic. The Quiet Coalition article explains that much of that equipment is dangerously loud, and  also that the usual 85 decibel limit people assumed for years was fine, is in fact very harmful. It recommends that 70 dB  be considered the safe upper limit. It also says many public places such as restaurants are dangerously loud and are harming hearing and, due to noise stress, harming health on a massive scale.

It’s not just average people who are suffering. Post-traumatic stress is rampant  and its victims can suffer from loud noise more than many others.  PTSD occurs in many populations–veterans, refugees from war and disaster, those in the line of fire or injured at mass shootings, those silently suffering from physical and emotional abuse, and those suffering from anxiety and depression which may or may not have been caused by abuse or violent crime. Many rarely get the help or understanding they need. Their fight or flight response is rarely turned off.  Many PTSD sufferers live among us and we may not even know it, and we can help them by not creating super-loud noise,   by encouraging sense of community where we live, and urging government to help create more calming green spaces (cared for without loud gas-powered equipment).

Our rush-rush American  lifestyle already puts us in fight-or-flight mode most of the time, and when we add other stresses such as loud noise we have few chances to calm ourselves. Yet many of us don’t realize what a high-stress state we’re in and may only find out after a stroke, heart attack, or major depression. If you’ve never been severely depressed, know it’s something you definitely don’t want to go through, is hard to recover from, and tends to come back. If we as a country changed our environments and some of the ways we think, we might calm our entire society in many ways including making less loud noise.  So we can help each other to be happier and healthier by reducing noise but also by trying to slow our pace , including our driving speeds (this makes traffic quieter and has  proven to save lives). We can give ourselves some extra down time to, in part, think about why we keep pushing ourselves so hard and fast, and about the kind of world we want to live in.

Such changes could encourage people like landscapers to want to cause less stress to others, and to consider high-enough earnings okay over insisting on highest possible profits (which may really not occur with louder equipment anyway).  Attitude change would help governments  to be less influenced by such people as noise tyrants and by the bottom line, and think first about health and wellbeing. Those still worried about money might see that stress is a major factor in many common diseases, and that decreasing stress would promote enough better health to reduce healthcare costs.  

6  Noises we Need to Decrease now to Reduce Stress & Illness:

Below are some of the things specifically causing our noise-related stress. We must remind ourselves how these add another stress layer to our other lifestyle stresses. If our leaders don’t help us with this, remember that we can  elect people who care about these issues, and work with organizations meant to promote and protect wellbeing of living things and the planet. 

    1. Lawn Care Equipment:  Gas-powered leaf-blowers, many too massive for the job, that millions suffer from, their pleas mostly ignored by government.  Often-hostile company owners using such machines and other loud and irritating ones are free to destroy peace of mind and raise blood pressure widely for long hours, with stunningly little concern for the wellbeing of others.

2. Air Travel:  Jets, helicopters,  and private planes, also freely allowed to destroy peace of mind at all hours in many cities, and which, like landscape equipment, keep people from getting needed calm outside in nature, in their gardens or on their porches. Jets  keep people from sleeping, essential not only to function but to reduce stress that can cause illness. Americans are already sleep-deprived, largely due to our overstressed lifestyle, but jet noise doesn’t help.  Many researchers think more business could be covered on Skype so that air travel can be at least somewhat reduced. Also there are jet silencers now, and more recently quieter planes (Boston’s Logan Airport to its credit is trying to using many of the quieter planes, yet sadly many people still suffer from jet noise often because there are just so many flights and so many residents in flight paths.) New technologies should be funded well, because while they’re expensive, they couldn’t possibly cost more than the health problems resulting from stress and lack of sleep suffered by millions due to constant flyovers. Many people must sleep in the daytimeincluding pilots who fly at night, other night workers,  those recuperating from illness, and small children and their mothers, and not only jets but all the other loud industrial equipment heard during the day keeps them awake. When they make the new laws needed to reduce these noise stresses, government and business need to remember that many people don’t work 9 to 5 in an office away from home. 

3.  All Other Gas-Powered Engines:  Diesel trucks, artificially-loud cars and motorcycles, car alarms, and construction equipment, which like landscape equipment is often allowed by weak laws to torture residents many hours per day.–in my town from 7 am to 7 pm, and on weekends 8 am to 7 pm. There is almost no relief at home all day then, or on weekends, holidays, or any part of any day when people may want to be in their gardens or on their porches or balconies. Often noise prevents them from even opening windows.

7  What else we can do

We have the same brain and nervous system we had centuries ago, so even though we like to think we can adapt to all this noise and to nature deprivation, the evidence from research is that we don’t. Yet we have little power to change things on our own. We do help ourselves and others by simply being thoughtful about noise, for example if we rake rather than blow our leaves, or if we buy non-gas-powered, quieter yard equipment (you might try those made by the EGO company, for example—more on this in another post). We can also help protect others by just talking more softly on our phones in public and not playing music or watching loud videos online or talking loudly when we’re around others in a cafe or a park bench. Those people may be desperate for some quiet time in nature, or in a cafe may just want to read or think or have their own quiet conversation, and we make these things impossible or very stressful when we’re loud. Usually they won’t have the nerve to ask us not to so it’s up to us to be kind. 

It’s become “normal” to make a lot of unnecessary noise and ignore others’ feelings and wellbeing, but there’s a reason people were taught in earlier times that this was the height of rudeness. It’s true that many kinds of rude or selfish behavior seem common right now, but we don’t have to participate, and if each of us helps to make the public environment less stressful we too will benefit. Because humans weren’t designed to hear constant loud artificial noise such as that from mechanical-sounding speaker phones, or just long shouted conversations (shouting can send a stress message of anger or danger to our brains), we help people near us by respecting their often over-stressed nervous systems, some of which are more vulnerable than others. 

When you add loud sound systems that so many businesses use now since they think loud music brings higher profits, you have the current norm of extremely loud noise in most places people used to go for a quiet cup of coffee and book or computer, or for a conversation with a friend.  Retail stores now, too, are off-limits for many who can’t withstand the loud music owners require store managers to play. The manager of one shop I used to enjoy but can’t go into now told me she could not turn down the music because it was controlled by the national office.  Many friends say they can no longer  set foot in  places they used to love, and miss the sense of community they used to have from going to them.  When this happens they often feel more isolated, especially if they don’t work in an office with others as is now common.

I have to call use of super-loud sound systems noise bullying, and yet another example of the almighty dollar winning out over public health and wellbeing. Individuals talking or phoning or playing videos loudly in public places with no regard for others near them are also noise bullies. Sound systems should be regulated. Individuals need to regulate themselves but will do so only if they learn or re-learn to feel empathy concerning others’ stress.  I doubt profits are truly higher with loud music because any increase would be balanced by loss of funds from all the customers who don’t go to the place any longer. Researchers say those who stay will suffer from higher cortisol levels, higher blood pressures–sometimes for hours, and if in the place often enough, gradual hearing loss.

You can do a great deal to protect your neighbors at home from added noise stress too. Use rakes and brooms more if you’re able, buy quieter non-gas-powered yard equipment if you must have it, and use it as little as possible at low volume levels and at reasonable times. You can check with others who live near you when you plan a party. Ask how much noise bothers them, and when they need to sleep. It’s kind anyway to try to keep noise levels down, keeping in mind neighbors’ children’s bedtimes or naps, and need for sleep of those who work at night or who are ill. Neighbors will love you for doing this and will likely reciprocate. So this kindness to others help to protect your own peace of mind, and you get to know your neighbors a little better. This gives an extra boost to your own health and wellbeing. More and more Americans complain that they feel little sense of community. This is a great way to begin to change that.

We can do little on our own about most other entities inflicting noise on us, and that’s why we need to encourage a return of more empathy and kindness in our society,. But we’ll also need to use some muscle to encourage government and business leaders to act to help us. It’s hard for residents to stop those who continue to make stressfully loud noise (some people never do acquire more empathy) without business and government help. But so far those entities seem unable to understand that loud noise is destructive to mental and physical health, and actually contributes to higher healthcare costs. The World Health Organization calls noise disturbance an epidemic. Somehow noise and the pollution often accompanying it remains low on priority lists. so we the people need to bump it up might higher by making a lot of noise ourselves about our need to de-stress and have a better chance to stay mentally and physically healthy. We need to remind them of the cost to them in healthcare dollars if they don’t help.

Returning to kindness and empathy for a moment, while we’re working on the usual slow response of government and business, we can try in any way we can think of to help increase awareness of the need to make our culture kinder. This can help not only with reducing noise but also reducing  aggression and violence caused by those kings of un-kindness, prejudice and hate.  So here’s a suggestion (and I”m sure you have more so do try them!)  How about schools and colleges teaching the importance of cultivating empathy and kindness curriculum-wide, especially in their business and law courses. Then the value of helping our society place wellbeing over highest profits, and place understanding and empathy over destructive prejudices, will be clear. Kindness will have a chance to become more widespread, even, if we’re lucky, becoming the new norm.  

It’s tragic to see something now common in our country:  people in a town begging–and I’ve seen them in tears–for quieter leaf-blowers or banning of gas-powered blowers, while the landscape companies respond with such ferocity that local governments back down. Residents aren’t trying to take income from the companies, but simply are desperate for relief from noise torture. The companies often say they can’t manage as many yards if they’re to do what residents ask. It’s doubtful the relief people need would reduce the companies’ number of yards by more than one or two per day, and with all the quieter non-gas equipment  available I think the companies overestimate how much quieter equipment would slow their work. They also likely overestimate how much profit loss they’ll have if hours are more limited. Do they even consider that if they use the cleanest, quietest equipment, the hours might not have to be limited  as much, and more people might be likely to hire them? One company in my area that does this now has a booming business. Customers and their neighbors love the quiet. So there seems no good reason these fierce battles must continue.

Yet even if we convince more companies to choose wellbeing of the public over the very highest profits, we’ll still need laws to protect us from companies and from individuals who don’t care if they harm others’ wellbeing. We can learn from some other countries a great deal about how to do this, and also how to provide more peace and calm for more people. To see exciting ideas for some of these look online for “happiest countries,”  “happiest cities,” “quietest cities,” etc. and you’ll be amazed. Pass the best of the ideas on to your reps in government, and say this is what you want.

8  Two Final Thoughts

First, as I write this post, one man among a group of people next to me in a coffee shop speaks to several friends at a volume suitable for making a speech to a full stadium. He dominates the others, and shouting on and on at this volume for over an hour. It’s almost impossible to read or think. This large coffee shop is loud, yes, but half the shop hears everything he says. The people he’s with sit just inches from him.  He invades the mental space of those at least a dozen  tables. In the past, or today in some European cities, he would be looked at by others in the room with extreme hostility. In these cities public gathering is as desirable as in other cities, but shouting one’s entire conversation is considered the height of rudeness.

Second, consider this:  loud noise has been used as an instrument of torture.

Below is the link to the above-mentioned  article on how noise is becoming the new secondhand smoke:

*https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/noise-exposure-is-becoming-the-new-secondhand-smoke/2018/05/11/dd080c30-52d3-11e8-9c91-7dab596e8252_story.html?utm_term=.c6c027241b39

Leave a Reply