Andrea Bartz, Harper’s Bazaar, dispenses with the niceties and cuts to the quick with her recent article on the consequences of urban noise. In her well-linked piece, she writes about “the number-two threat to public health, after air pollution,” and it’s effect on our health. She begins by focusing on the known universe of horribles that are triggered by the relentless assault of noise in cities, namely “[c]ancer, heart disease, obesity and myriad other conditions” that are exacerbated by stress, adding that the “constant gush of stress hormones actually restructures the brain, contributing to tumor development, heart disease, respiratory disorders, and more.”
And the problems don’t end with health consequences. Bartz speaks to Arline Bronzaft, PhD, an environmental psychologist who has been a noise activist for over four decades. Bronzaft states that “[e]ven if you don’t have health problems yet, you’ll have diminished quality of life [from noise pollution].” A diminished quality of life includes bouts of interrupted sleep, interference with cognitive tasks, and elevated stress hormones. As Bronzaft notes, “[b]y dealing with the sounds of the city, you’re using up energy, which is costly to your body.”
Bartz says that our parents didn’t have it so bad, and turns to Bart Kosko, Ph.D., a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and the author of Noise, who asserts that “[c]ell phones are largely to blame.” Why? Because someone talking on the cell phone “imposes a type of sonic nuisance on those nearby,” which “gets worse when several people talk on cell phones” and they compete with each other to “maintain the same signal-to-noise ratio as the level of crosstalk noise grows.” This is known as the Lombard effect.
Street noise is worse too, as an audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli shows that the number of noise complaints in New York City more than doubled in the last five years. But the audit also shows that there are few real repercussions for violators, even for clubs and bars racking up hundreds of complaints.
So what can be done? Bartz writes of people (of means) turning to self-help measures like “digital detox” packages for a noise detoxification. But for those who can’t afford an escape to a desert island or world-class spa, what are our options? Bartz gets some practical advice from Bronzaft and Kosko, and she writes about Quiet Mark, which identifies quiet consumer products with a seal of approval and encourages manufacturers to prioritize noise reduction in product design.
But in the end it is obvious that a noise detox or a quieter dishwasher can’t achieve the kind of results that effective government regulation could. While her article is mostly spot on, we wish that Bartz had addressed what government could do to control noise. So here’s hoping that Bartz is working on Part II of a series, with the second piece focusing on what government could do to control and regulate noise, and what we must do to make them do it.