Noise Pollution

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This episode was written & produced by Dave Parsons.

Noise pollution is something we’ve all experienced. Road construction, motorcycles, passing aircraft - the list goes on and on. Other than being just plain annoying, what effect does noise pollution have on our lives? In this episode we take a look at the physical and psychological effects of noise pollution on humans, as well as the wider and equally devastating environmental repercussions. Featuring Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, and Rachel Buxton, acoustic ecologist, conservation biologist, and postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University.


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View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of Noise Pollution - how it affects your health, and so much more.

[Calming Nature SFX]

Imagine you’re hiking through Yellowstone National Park. You’ve spent the better part of a day traversing steep inclines, boulders and streams. You find a remote location just off of a major trail, and decide to rest. As you begin to relax, you become overwhelmed by the majestic soundscape of this unadulterated wilderness. You close your eyes, listening to the beauty of the birdsong overhead, the steady babble of a nearby stream [stream SFX], the sound of the wind blowing softly through the trees [wind blowing through trees SFX]. Just as you’ve settled into a deep relaxation…

[Jet passing loudly overhead SFX]

There’s no getting around it - there are certain sounds that when we hear them, we simply don’t like it. But does this qualify them as noise pollution? What is noise? To get a better idea, I spoke with Les Blomberg, the executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.

Les: The most common definition out there is, "Noise is unwanted sound," and it's really the most unsatisfactory definition at the same time. It really doesn't describe what noise is. It paints noise only in terms of whether it's wanted or not. It makes it totally subjective. The way I like to define noise is, "Noise is a sound that harms the wellbeing of people or animals, or interferes with activities." There's also another definition of noise, which is, "Noise is a sound that is out of place or inharmonious."

So, the loud clicking and clattering of a coffee shop [coffee shop sounds], I’d say that’s noise. The sounds from the apartment above that can best be described as bowling balls rolling around on the hardwood floor [bowling bowls rolling SFX]that’s probably noise as well. That annoying beeping sound the debit card reader makes when it’s done reading your chip [chip reader SFX] - that’s definitely noise.

But what are the major offenders? What sounds are so intrusive, so audibly aggressive that we collectively consider them a kind of pollution? For that, we have to go back to when it all started.

Les: It all began right at the turn of the century. In 1903, we have the founding of the Ford Motor Company [old car honk SXF]. We have the founding of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles [harley motorcycle SFX]. We have the Kitty Hawk flight [small plane SFX]. We have just this explosion of internal combustion engines that are making noise across the country.

Then around the 1950s we have the addition of the jet engine [jet engine SFX], the gas mower [mower SFX]. The snowmobile [snowmobile SFX], the Jet Ski [jet ski SFX], the leaf blower [leaf blower SFX].

We see an invention of a noise, the growth of that noise source. And then probably the most important thing, is the spreading of this noise from our urban areas to our suburban and our rural areas. And that's really the most striking thing in the last century, is that what we've lost is opportunities for peace and quiet.

For over a century we’ve been dealing with a massive rise in noise pollution across the country, but recognizing the sources of noise pollution is only the first step. Measuring it is another matter altogether.

Rachel: Our measure of noise pollution we define as the number of decibels above natural.

That’s Rachel Buxton, an acoustic ecologist and Conservation Biologist at Colorado State University. She’s been working with her colleagues at CSU, along with the National Parks Service, to predict levels of noise pollution across the United States.

Rachel: When we're talking about anthropogenic noise pollution or human-caused noise pollution, this is something that's human like traffic, either from aircraft, vehicles, industrial noise, that sort of thing...

We can't really think of it in the conventional way of 35 decibels is really quiet and 80 decibels is really loud.

Decibels give a measurement of the pressure variations in the air. When measuring noise pollution, the important thing is to find the difference in noise - how much noise has crept in through pollution.

Rachel: A 3 decibel increase in sound energy above natural would be a doubling of sound energy. Another way of thinking about this is your listening area so how far you can hear things. So if a human was walking in the woods and used to be able to hear some kind of sound, maybe a bird singing [bird song SFX] or a friend calling [friend call SFX] from a 100 feet away, if anthropogenic noise raises sound energy by three decibels, instead of now hearing that sound at a 100 feet, you can only hear it from 50 feet away.

While the decibel may be an effective way to measure the intensity of a sound, it’s important to note that noise pollution can be caused by many additional factors. Take a car alarm - for instance [car alarm SFX]. Its high-pitched frequency, its alternating between different jarring tones, its repetitive nature. The decibel fails to account for all these other acoustic features. For example - Consider waking up in the middle of the night to a persistent drip from a faucet [faucet drip SFX]. It isn’t loud at all - a decibel measurement would read fairly low - but that doesn’t keep it from disturbing your sleep.

Les: The best measure of noise is our ears. We get to hear the frequency, the content, the tones, all aspects of the noise, and not just one number that represents kind of but not exactly the loudness of that noise, which is the decibel level.

The term “noise pollution” can at first seem kind of alarmist. Hearing the word pollution probably makes you think of air pollution, or possibly water or soil pollution – all of which infer some dire circumstance, a poisoning of the basic resources we all need to survive. But noise pollution? How can excess noise be a threat to our very survival?

Les: If you were to ask people 50 years ago, what's the problem with noise? Noise is an annoyance, that would be the problem with noise. Really in the last 10 to 15 years, scientists have studied noise and looked at it in terms of the cardiovascular effects, and have found that noise is actually killing us. Researchers now are finding out that people who live near airports, two to four percent of the heart attacks that occur near that airport are related to the noise. Same with highways. Every month there's a new study on the health effects of noise, and we're beginning to understand now that noise is much more than just an annoyance. That it actually has a measurable effect on our health.

Studies have linked noise pollution with hearing impairment, hypertension, elevated blood pressure, heart disease, changes in the immune system and even birth defects. Exposure to high noise levels have also been linked to an increased frequency of headaches, fatigue, stomach ulcers, and vertigo.

Les: Noise triggers our fight or flight response, it does this whether or not we are "habituated" to the noise. People say, "Oh, I get used to the noise." What they're saying is that it's not on a conscious level a distraction to me. But our biology, we've been hardwired for thousands and thousands of years to respond to noise. It triggers our fight or flight response. Either we're going to get a little amped up so we can deal with this problem or run away from the problem. That still happens, whether or not we're aware of it or not at a conscious level. Scientists think that that is the underlying cause of our cardiovascular effects that we are suffering.

So even when it’s not annoying us, noise pollution can still be taking its toll on our bodies. And it’s not just our bodies being affected. The fight or flight response isn’t an exclusively human trait - what happens when the noise we generate begins disturbing the rest of the ecosystem? Find out after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

We’ve heard about different sources of noise pollution and the negative effects it can have on our health - but what about the rest of the planet? As some of our most primal instincts can be triggered by noise, it’s not hard to believe that humans aren’t the only ones affected.

Rachel: Noise pollution can mask natural sounds or cover up those natural sounds. And those natural sounds are even more important for wildlife. They can actually be the difference between life and death. So if you think about a prey that's listening for a predator in the bushes, if an anthropogenic noise covers up that sound, it could mean that that prey is going to end up being eaten. Also, noise pollution is known to just scare away animals. So, an animal may perceive noise pollution as a threat and in that case, that would initiate a fight or flight response and the animal would flee an area. Causing sort of changes in distribution of animals.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of noise pollution aren’t confined to the animal kingdom alone. Some studies suggest that even plant life can be affected.

Rachel: Plants grow in response to the vibrations from water sound. So, underground water actually vibrates the soil and plants orient themselves towards those vibrations. They can sense the vibrations from the water sound and grow their roots towards that water source. If we start messing with these fine-tune mechanisms that different species have in place to orient towards sound to perform really basic life functions, we could be messing with things that are a much larger scale than we think.

You don’t often think about excess noise having a direct effect on an entire ecosystem. What’s equally surprising, though, is what happens when noise pollution begins to affect the way we act.

Les: Back in the '70s there was this whole host of experiments around civility, like there is today around cardiovascular effects of noise.

[experiment exmaple clip played in background] They had a guy in a cast drop some packages in a noisy environment and in a quiet environment. The noise was, I believe, provided by a lawnmower right nearby, and the quiet was the same exact location without the lawnmower. And they looked at how many people were willing to help this guy pick up his packages, and in the noisy environment the helping behavior was reduced. They've done this experiment many different ways. They've done it in noisy offices. You got the same office building [office SFX], the same people. You take somebody through the office building, you ask them, "How much do you think this person is worth? He works here, he answers the phones, he does this, he does that. She does that." And the subject would say how much they thought the person should get paid. And then they controlled the noise level in the environment, and when it was noisier, people recommended lower values.

So, next time you ask for a raise, make sure you do it in a great sounding space.

Les: As our communities become noisier, we are more likely to be less civil and less generous to others. And I think that's really a problem as we try to live together in an increasingly smaller world.

If learning of all these negative effects of noise pollution has your head spinning, you’re not alone. But don’t go plugging your ears just yet - there’s a chance that the future may be just a bit quieter.

Les: The same technology that makes the noise can be used to reduce the noise.

For example, electric lawn equipment, electric vehicles, electric buses, electric cars. All of these are much, much quieter than internal combustion engine vehicles and devices. So there's this real potential that the 21st century will not be as loud...

For now, though, the best way to combat noise pollution is to raise awareness. And the best way to do that? Encourage others to listen.

Rachel: If you think of Yellowstone, you've got those bubbling mud pools [bubbling pool SFX] from geothermal activity. You've got packs of wolves which howl [wolf howling SFX]. You've got valleys filled with bird song [bird song SFX].

We go to these beautiful national parks in our country and we're in awe of these beautiful vistas like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, but something we want to try and encourage people to do is take some time to appreciate those acoustic resources as really magnificent, and adding to the Park’s character. And worthy of our protection.

Noise creates a kind of acoustic competition for our attention. We’re not always annoyed by the sound of road traffic or an aircraft in the distance - but we can all agree - it’s nice to be able to get away from it all, even if just for a little while. And when we do finally get away - the sound we hear then - those sounds are worth saving.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound, a sound team dedicated to making the world sound better. Whether it’s a video, film, or game, Defacto makes it sound insanely cool. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.

This episode was written and produced by Dave Parsons ...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.

Thanks to our guest Les Blomberg from the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse is a national non-profit organization with extensive online noise related resources. Find out more at nonoise dot org. Thanks also to our guest Rachel Buxton from Colorado State University. This episode would not have been possible without the amazing work she and her group at CSU are doing alongside the National Parks Service.

All of the music in this episode is from Musicbed. Musicbed has a curated catalog of over 650 great indie bands and composers, all available for licensing. Check out a playlist of all of the incredible tracks we’ve used at music.20k.org.

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Thanks for listening.


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