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May 29, 2004

Noise is `toxic' but we love our poison

From: Toronto Star - Toronto,Ontario,Canada - May 29, 2004

Sociologists warn some are addicted

Others retreat to comforting 'bubbles'Sociologists warn some are addicted


For some people, the first warm summer breezes bring on a storm of emotion. Not euphoria, but anxiety, for summer is a time when the Neighbours from Hell climb onto their balcony, plug in the heavy-metal CDs, and let fly with a salvo that makes Shock and Awe sound like peace and quiet.

The balmy months are the nadir of the noise-afflicted, filling the streets with the roar of road work, the blast of boom cars, the pandemonium of power saws, the squawk of stereos, and the 100-decibel din of the chattering classes shouting above the music in outdoor hard-rock cafes.

But at any time of year, experts say, noise is growing.

Its effects range from widespread hearing loss at all ages to physical and psychological stress, impairment of learning and daily work, and even disruption of wildlife.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning brouhaha around us appears to be creating a society of solitary people screaming at others who fail to hear, or even listen, as the background noise pounds on. Some people respond by enclosing themselves in "bubbles" of noise-cancelling headphones, ersatz ocean waves, or soundproofed spaces to hide from an increasingly intrusive world.

Socially, as well as physically, experts say, we are in danger of becoming a society in which dialogues of the deaf are not the exception, but the rule.

"There is no doubt that noise causes impairment, and that noise pollution is a growing concern," says David Behm, associate professor of human kinetics at Newfoundland's Memorial University. "Still, noise gets little attention. It seems to be the least concerning form of pollution."

Behm's study, focusing on industrial noise, found that noise impaired both decision-making ability and reaction time. Other researchers have found that even low-level noise like that of a computerized workplace can cause stress that contributes to anxiety and heart disease.

Environmental psychologists say prolonged noise causes numerous behavioural and cognitive effects, including sleeplessness, short attention span, a sense of helplessness and diminished feeling of responsibility toward others.

Not by accident was noise chosen as a "psychological stressor" by American military experts, who use blasts of loud music to break down enemy resistance. They follow in the footsteps of fighters who, centuries ago, screamed war cries and battle songs at their foes as they attacked.

Throughout history, one man's musical meat has been another's aural poison. Hearing, like all the senses, is a delicate interplay of physical and emotional factors processed by the brain as it determines how we perceive and behave.

The ear is the threshold of sound, which travels in invisible waves that penetrate and reach the eardrum, lodged in the middle ear.

The drum vibrates, and three tiny bones send the tremors to the cochlea, enclosed in the skull and filled with fluid. The small, circular cochlea also contains 15,000 minute hair cells, each tuned to a particular frequency. Their rapid-fire electrical signals send messages along the auditory nerve to the brain.

But once the hair cells are damaged by noise, medical scientists have found, they do not grow back. After years of excessive noise exposure, sensory-neural deafness sets in. Injury to the cochlea can also cause tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears," which afflicts some 10 per cent of North Americans by the time they reach retirement age.

How much noise is too much?

"There are many opinions," says Eric Greenspoon, president of NoiseWatch, an Ontario-based group dedicated to raising awareness of harmful noise. "We've had hundreds of calls from people who complain of everything from wind chimes to a neighbour who set up a dirt-bike course in his backyard. Many different situations cause a nuisance."

While opinions on what's unacceptable noise vary, medical facts are clear: "There is no known risk of hearing loss associated with sound levels below 70 decibels," says Health Canada. But above that volume, the cumulative noise exposure we undergo in a day becomes a risk factor. Those who work in a clattering environment should avoid clubbing away their leisure hours, unless fitted with earplugs.

The pain threshold for noise is 140 decibels, equivalent to a burst from a military assault rifle. But in a car crash, an automobile airbag deploys with a force of 170 decibels. One hundred twenty decibels, the threshold of discomfort, is the level of a car's horn honking, a jackhammer, or some amplified stereo music. An approaching subway train blasts out 100 decibels, and a highway ride in a convertible delivers 95 decibels. Music in a fitness class may be amped up to 96 decibels.

But the relationship between pain, hearing damage, stress and noise tolerance is complex, complicating efforts to set standards, both for noise victims and the authorities who make the rules.

Although city bylaws outlaw "disturbing the peace," they usually require that noise be squelched only at certain times of day. In Toronto, for instance, amplified stereo noise is outlawed between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. except for Sundays and holidays, when it's barred until 9 a.m. That, critics say, does little for the cumulative daily effect of noise that results in hearing damage and physical and emotional stress.

But noise has its defenders, too, in growing numbers. Many people are not only accustomed to high levels of background noise, but seek it out whenever possible.

"Our customers like the music turned up," said the maitre d' of a popular central Toronto bistro. "If I turn it down, they complain because they think there's nothing happening. They want to be part of a buzzy scene."

But Greenspoon says "it's a vicious circle. People start to go deaf, so they notch up the volume to compensate. It happens inside homes, and in public. The noise level just gets higher and higher, along with the hearing damage."

Noise monitors have found a dramatic change over the past two decades, as affluence and technological advances produced products that filled the world with a rising clamour.

Even poor countries are seeing burgeoning traffic, boosting vehicle noise. The world has more trucks, SUVs and loud sports vehicles such as snowmobiles and powerboats. In back yards, power mowers and leaf and snow blowers are common.

Noise as entertainment is also louder; clubs play ear-splitting music, and cinemas turn up the volume on blaring special-effects films. Home stereos are more powerful than ever, and "boom cars" blast out noise. Children's toys, television shows and video games are raucous. And with music piped into offices, subways, elevators and hospitals, there's nowhere to hide.

Even in more rural areas, human-generated noise disrupts the behaviour of animals and encroaches on their habitats, according to naturalists. The U.S. National Park Service was so concerned about harmful noise effects it declared "natural soundscapes" a protected resource.

"Noise is toxic, but in many cases people don't even know they're suffering from it," explains Hans Schmid, of the Vancouver-based Right to Quiet Society. "People are becoming addicted, and like a drug, they want it in higher and higher doses. They don't understand that it's dangerous to health."

Mary Florentine, an audiology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, was one of the first to discover that loud music can be addictive. In a 1999 study, 10 per cent of the men and women studied, ranging from teens to late middle age, became hooked on blaring sounds, whether pop or classic. In spite of hearing problems, they found themselves unable to turn down the volume.

"One of the hallmarks of addiction is continued use despite knowledge of physical harm," she wrote, noting that music could "induce rapid, potent changes in mood and level of arousal, the ability to reduce negative states, and the tendency to elicit the experience of craving."

But what is it about noise that addicts crave?

According to Oklahoma sociologist Michael Phillip Wright, "noise is necessary to validate experience as worthwhile. Discomfort and boredom are the consequences of its absence. The afflicted are unable to entertain themselves with their thoughts, imaginations or conversation. Noise fills the empty space between their ears."

Much of the noise craving, he says, is a result of "audio stimulus dependency disorder" developing in a generation that grew up with busy or absent parents, who substituted television and blaring entertainment for their company. Without a buzz in the background, such young people now feel lonely and depressed.

Commercialism feeds the hunger, Wright says: "We have chaos, overstimulation, huge TV screens, whirring video games, flashing lights, and barroom environments that serve no purpose other than to promote heavy liquor sales, hearing impairment and the suppression of intelligent human-to-human communication."

Dame Gillian Weir, a leading British organist and anti-noise activist, laments that "people are growing deaf in two senses ... there's physical hearing loss, (but) they are also deaf spiritually and in terms of awareness. In order to survive with the noise level the world has, we have to shut it out to some extent."

That may mean sounding the retreat from noise.

Electronics shops are selling a variety of "environmental filters" such as "white noise" machines that let owners choose birdsong, gentle waves or soft, hypnotic music with which to surround themselves at home.

Noise-cancelling headphones are growingly popular not only with frequent flyers, but also those who want to cocoon themselves from noisy neighbours, traffic and workplaces.

"We're finding that self-soothing in these little bubbles seems to be more comfortable," American psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith told the New York Times. "We're trying to deal with the fact that most of the people we see are strangers ... we think, 'I'm going to keep them out ... and they're really annoying.'"

Sonic barriers, says Canadian composer and theorist R. Murray Schafer, are a new phenomenon that presents great contradictions for modern society.

As noise grows, so do efforts to hide from it, reflected for example in the development of heavy glass to insulate building interiors from the world.

"The beautiful French windows along the avenues of European cities, sufficient at one time to resist street noise, have long since become inadequate. Those windows were intended to be opened. They did not seal off the environment totally, as do the unopenable windows of a modern hotel room."

Now, Schafer says, it's possible to create a "travelogue of life" by looking out through that glass: "The world through the window is like the world of a movie set, with the radio as soundtrack." Inside, inhabitants create their own environment and soundscape. Their interest in communicating with others plummets as the volume rises inside and outside.

Some critics despair of what seems to be an irreversible trend toward rising levels of damaging noise. Others say the answer is to educate children to turn down the volume, before their ears are numbed.

Some young people are already beginning to re-examine their own relationship with noise and question it.

"In our world of noise and turbulence, the state of silence can easily be perceived as threatening," admits young British Columbia athlete Heather de Geest in an essay. "How can we expect ourselves to appreciate silence when we avoid it so intensely? After a night of loud broadband music, walking through the forest can be a somewhat terrifying experience. But such an experience calms my mental processes and enables me to remain connected to the quietness within."

That kind of insight is a hopeful sign, says Greenspoon.

"The anti-noise movement hasn't had a lot of successes yet, but the consensus is growing worldwide. The anti-smoking lobby had solid evidence of health damage for a long time before they got where they are today. We think we're about 25 years behind them."

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