Tag Archives: increasing tolerance for noise

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A Different Kind of Seasonal Storm

Add to our year of bad weather yet another seasonal problem that can obliterate the quieter sounds of fall.

In the scheme of things, some of our problems are more dire than others. Allow me to raise one that may not be on everyone’s radar, but has real negative effects.  Leaf blowers are getting to be a nuisance and a threat to the health of those who are even yards away from them.

A lot of inventions have the unfortunate side effect of producing massive waves of air pressure that assault fragile ears. Think of helicopters, which mercilessly beat the air to fight against the forces of gravity. Planes fly with their fixed wings, providing lift by powering forward. But a helicopter’s utility of being able to hover in one place comes at the considerable cost of greater continuous noise.  It’s not unusual to hear the pumping sound of one that is still miles away.

Fortunately, it is usually only the wealthy in the most exclusive of neighborhoods that have to hear private helicopters on a daily basis. But the rest of us must deal a smaller version of the same effect of thrashing air that attacks the cochlea in the inner ear. Suburbia and campuses of all sorts are awash with the sounds of ubiquitous leaf blowers that move nearly weightless leaves and particles of dust, all for the sake of monocolor lawns or unbroken expanses of asphalt. In spite of the advice of horticulturists and public health officials to leave well enough alone, leaves and dust are seen as elements that must be blown to adjacent properties.  What ever happened to rakes?

In one sense, gas powered leaf blowers are air guns that fire continuously, producing airport levels of noise at pitches where the ear is especially sensitive: usually between 250 to 3000 Hz.  Even worse, the carbon monoxide that is also thrown into the air is as bad for the lungs as the sounds of blowers are for the ears. No wonder more communities especially on the west and east coasts are beginning to ban them.  The list includes Burlington Vermont; New Rochelle, Oyster Bay, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown in New York, Montclair and Maplewood in New Jersey; Evanston, Glencoe and Highland Park in Illinois; Colorado’s Aspen, Carbondale, and the Denver suburb of Westminster; and a large number of cities in California, including Los Angeles, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Menlo Park, Mill Valley, Newport Beach, Ojai, Palo Alto, Piedmont and Santa Barbara.

The noise a neighbor creates in pursuit of a minor landscaping objective is a form of environmental disruption: in some ways the equivalent of lighting the exterior of a house with the kinds of bright sodium lamps found in parking lots, or spreading lawn chemicals with odors and toxins that migrate across property lines. We don’t think of excessive sound as pollution.  But it is.  As I noted in my study, The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, it makes sense to think of noise as aural refuse. It’s another kind of tangible junk that degrades a space.

Granted, blowers can tidy up a property in short order.  Full disclosure: I have one as well that gets limited use for just a few minutes at a time. A “short duration” rule doesn’t completely take me off the hook, but one practical issue with these devices is the long lengths of time that these noisy two cycle engines are allowed to run. At work I’ve had students try to hear above four “backpack” leaf blowers outside the windows of my classroom.  It’s always a lost cause; their presentations lose out to the machines used to comb acres of groomed lawn. In several instances the fracas resulted in some heated exchanges with members of the landscape crew in what should have been a tranquil environment. Those guys were just following orders. But like the rest of us, they probably didn’t think much about how a manufactured racket can deprive others of their right to be left undisturbed.



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The Costs of the Din Add Up

We’ve turned the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ into one long visit to the land of auditory commotion.

As readers of this blog will know, sound is a current preoccupation.  I’m not sure if its a curse or blessing, but once a writer starts down the path of a new project, its hard to stop. Everything is seen through the lens of the work.

A new book on the noise in our lives by David Owen (Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World) is a timely reminder of how much racket we tolerate. The modern frenetic existence isn’t just a function of being busy.  It’s also an effect of living full time in a din of disruptive noise. We turned the soundtrack of our lives into one long visit to the land of auditory commotion. It’s the kind of effect you expect entering a busy pre-school or sharing the street with a group of motorcyclists out for a Sunday ride. The areas  surrounding busy airports are especially hazardous to one’s ears and mental health.  Huge amounts of fuel are thrown into a jet engine that compresses and then explodes it.  Even the ostensibly quiet ones are noise demons. It’s din easily passes the 85 db threshold that can cause permanent ear damage over just a few hours.  And the pummeling of the air by helicopter blades overhead is even more brutal: the rough equivalent of watering orchids with a fire hose.  As Owen notes, virtually all of us arrive at adulthood having done some irreparable damage to our hearing.

Below the obvious case of airports, what are the sources of ambient noise that most of us experience on a daily basis?  The list is long: hair dryers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, tree cutters, high aircraft on approach to a distant airport, helicopter traffic, heaters, refrigerators, microwave ovens, mixers, radios and televisions that are often left on to become aural wallpaper, auto and motorcycle mufflers—some tuned  to be loud, vacuums, car alarms, emergency vehicles, general traffic, internal combustion engines, truck pick-ups and deliveries, copying machines, nearby construction equipment, exhaust fans, truck ‘engine braking,’ Muzak, cooling fans, microwave ovens, video games, bars and restaurants, live concerts and sporting events, domestic pumps, clothes and dish washers, lawn mowers and garden equipment, elevators, subway and truck brakes, the impossible-to-block long waves from a bass speaker, nearby foot traffic, portable generators, barking dogs, phone rings, cooling systems for server centers and industrial plants, garages for auto repairs and more.

Of course we don’t confront these sources at once.  But a good guess is that a city resident will experience most of this noise in the short time frame of a few days. And some of this noise pollution—traffic, appliances, planes, lawn equipment—is ubiquitous. Their sounds almost never go away.  That is, until we are old.  Then, creeping deafness and tinnitus leave the marks.  Deafness is one of the great and mostly undiagnosed causes of depression and withdrawal in older Americans.

You can audit your own environment with a simple test.  Turn off the master switch in the electrical panel where you live. You’ve eliminated most of your own noise sources at that point.  But how much still seeps in from your neighbors and the proximate environment?  I live in the country on a one-lane road surrounded by woods. By all accounts the noise level in my home should be below 20 db.  But 30 db is about as low as the sound levels go: a function of distant air traffic, a noisy fan in a cable controller box that can’t be turned off, the noise of a heater, and a new “quiet” refrigerator in a distant room that carries the sound of its motor vibrations through the wood structure of the building.  100 years ago, that 20 db mark would have been easier to achieve.