INDUSTRIAL & Other LOUD NOISE & its EFFECTS on HEALTH & WELLBEING

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–that is, nature without industrial noise.  Research also shows that loud noise in general is decreasing wellbeing and adding to illness worldwide.

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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 loud engines, exposure to the exhaust from many of them) 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 noisy and toxic atmosphere humans were never exposed to for most of their existence.

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 such extended hours are illegal in many cities in the world. Noise laws are generally lax in the United States. In my town, and according to my research, in many others, the loose laws are clearly designed to largely 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 these people and businesses are seemingly unable to (or refuse to) consider how much anyone else may be stressed and made ill by the noise and fumes. They in fact don’t seem to even consider the effects on their own and their families’ health.

There is similar lack of empathy in legions of restaurant and store owners who now regularly torture many of their customers (and quite a few employees) with sound often loud enough to damage hearing, cause headaches, and raise blood pressure for hours after the exposure. (See, for example, these links:

https://ny.racked.com/2012/7/20/7717129/abercrombie-and-hollister-are-painfully-loud-on-purpose

&

https://www.vox.com/2018/4/18/17168504/restaurants-noise-levels-loud-decibels

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, and often associated with depression and increasingly mental illness. Community–and not isolation–is best for human thriving. Research shows repeatedly that too much isolation is unhealthy, from infancy on.

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. Again, 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,”) age, ethnicity, or occupation. Younger people who think they “get used to” noise often don’t realize it’s still damaging their hearing and raising their blood pressures.

Real hopelessness due to loud noise 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 stressful matters in our lives worse, researchers say we desperately need more nature 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. Such nature starvation is especially severe in cities. Right now most nature we can find in the city and increasingly anywhere else 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 at home could go something like this: you go outside for a few quite minutes in nature in your yard or on a balcony, 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 is nicer, such as another of our neighbors, who told us he had no idea the blower bothered people. He was kind and turned it off, for awhile anyway. Sadly, this response is rare.  

Occupants of the many homes and apartments close to all but the quietest streets rarely can open their windows or go outside because of noise and exhaust. A motorcycle and 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.

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

Welcome to TheSereneCity.com

Susan Cooke

Cities worldwide are mostly growing larger, and as they grow, many become more stressful to live in, so stressful that they’re making people ill, and according to some research even shortening their lives. I began observing a while back that American cities have their own particular brand of stress, influenced by key aspects of American culture such as living at high speed with little downtime, too little nature and too much industrial noise in our daily lives, and so much connection to screens and devices we can barely catch a breath or think our own thoughts. I began writing the book Stress in the American City in hopes of helping others in American cities (and in cities elsewhere that share our problems) to make city life less stressful, healthier, and happier. I do this by studying research on the major city stresses and also studying other cities and countries that have successfully handled any of these stresses.

Currently I spend much of my time trying to finish the book, yet I do want to start the conversation online as well. Just now I may not be able to write or respond here as much as I’d like to in the near future, but comments will be much appreciated in any case and I’ll do my best to respond when possible. I’m especially interested in what stresses you the most in your own city, and any solutions you’ve seen or heard about that other cities might try. That way we can all learn together and hopefully help our own cities become healthier, happier places.

Finally I want to mention that my comments may seem at times naive to some people. I think it’s necessary to find hope where you can, and I sometimes need to write about some upsetting things people are tired of thinking about (I don’t blame them!) I try to add a positive spin so we don’t all get too depressed about these things, and in fact I  believe that in many cases there are good solutions available to us if we all work hard on it together on them. We’ll need to do that as private citizens, business owners, and government leaders. Some readers have told me they feel more hopeful after seeing some of my comments. Others have said of my perhaps over idealistic notions, “someone does need to say these things,” and have asked me to continue. Whatever your reaction, I hope you can get something worthwhile here–some useful information and some hope–and not think too unkindly of my optimism even if it does at times seem unrealistic. I couldn’t continue if down deep I didn’t believe solutions were possible.

A VERY BRIEF BIOGRAPHY

I was born in New York City, raised in Houston, Texas, and now live in the Boston area.

BLOG BACKGROUND

I research and write about stress in cities, especially American cities, and about hunger, homelessness, and changing from a cruel to a kinder culture. I’ve worked on and off (to support my singing habit, mentioned below) as a radio and print news reporter, anchor, writer, and editor on a variety of subjects, often with an emphasis on medicine and mental and physical health. Sometimes I’ll write about current events here, but I’ll also offer some ways we can reduce stress in our cities or wherever you may live. (See my list of anti-depressant movies, for example, or the list of music that helps you work but is calming at the same time.)  At other times I might just tell a story about something I think readers will enjoy. The blog will tell me over time where it’s leading.

ARTE LYRICA

In addition to having written about one thing or another for most of my life, I’ve also lived much of my life primarily as a classical singer (opera, musicals, some jazz)and founder, artistic director, and singer with the concert and opera performing group Arte Lyrica (currently on hiatus). We produce intimate narrated song concerts, usually with two to four singers, piano, and sometimes other instruments, and a narration I research and write on the history of the composers, poets, and the times and places in which the songs were written, resulting in such concert titles as “An Evening in Paris,”  “A Salon in London,” or “Songs of Love and War.”

We’re best known for song concerts, plus the U.S.East Coast premiere of Handel’s great opera Rodelinda, edition by myself and conductor/keyboard master Michael Beattie. We also produced Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas and the wonderful comic opera Bon Appetit! featuring Julia Child baking a chocolate cake on TV, by American composer Lee Hoiby (who adored her and her programs). To avoid name confusion in case the reader attended any of our concerts, Rodelinda was produced when we were called Cambridge Lieder & Opera Society, and for a while we shortened that to Cambridge Opera. When operas mostly became unaffordable and we focused more on concerts with narration only, we switched to the name Arte Lyrica.

My husband Victor Preston serves as CEO in charge of all things business for Arte Lyrica, also scenery making, lighting, sound engineering, recording, singer-wrangling, website development and maintenance, co-PR director, co-program designer, and encourager in chief. He is also a software developer and created this blog using WordPress.