Stop the noise!

When noise pollution is not making us sick and anxious, it is literally killing us. How do we turn it off?

Published June 25, 2008 11:50AM (EDT)

Henry Bean can't stand the sound of burglar alarms. He hates back-up beepers on trucks and bristles when garbage rigs grind up their fetid loads in the middle of the night, the noise reverberating off Manhattan's buildings. But Bean harbors special resentment for the oblivious car owners whose vehicles blare false alarms. "It bothers me that their cars can shout in my ear, not stop shouting, and I can't do anything about it," he says. "My pride can't handle it. I can't exist if I don't fight back in some way, however pathetically or ineffectually."

For years, Bean enacted small-scale revenge, breaking in to stop the alarms or letting air out of tires. One night in the early '90s, an alarm sounded for more than four hours outside his apartment at 97th Street and West End. By the time Bean broke into the car, the vehicle was covered with eggs, beer and tomatoes. "People inflicted their fury, but nobody did what I did, which is break the window, pop the hood and disconnect the battery cable," he says.

For his crime against private property, Bean was arrested. After a night in jail, and spending thousands on his legal defense, Bean was somewhat chastened, but not reformed. Just the other day, a car alarm started making a ruckus, and he confesses he confronted the blaring vehicle and "did some stuff to it," but won't be more specific than that.

Bean, who is in his early 60s, is a screenwriter, director, novelist and actor. He may be best known for his 2001 film "The Believer," about a 22-year-old Jew (Ryan Gosling) who becomes a Nazi skinhead, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His real-life role as noise vigilante inspired "Noise," released in May, in which an upscale Manhattan lawyer (Tim Robbins) throws away his job, his marriage and his apartment in a quixotic quest to fight car alarms. In vain pursuit of a little quiet, the lawyer becomes "The Rectifier," waging a one-man war on the discordant urban soundscape, throttling offending cars. One scene shot at 97th and West End replicates Bean's own crime and trip to jail.

Despite a host of good reviews, in the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, "Noise" hasn't found a huge audience. But if the film won't set any box office records, it does spotlight a pervasive form of pollution that seems to escape our concern -- at our peril. Recent studies reveal that noise can be harmful to human health, just like water or air pollution, damaging not only hearing and sleep but raising our blood pressure to dangerous levels. According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year.

In the city that never sleeps, noise is the No. 1 quality-of-life complaint. New York City's 311 hot line logged 350,000 complaints about racket in 2006, according to Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist who studies noise. In the '70s, Bronzaft did landmark research on how the noise of elevated train tracks hampered children's learning in nearby schools. Now a member of New York's Council on the Environment, she recently helped rewrite the city's noise code.

In July 2007, a new noise code went into effect, updating the old one for the first time in 30 years, and regulating construction noise, air-conditioner noise, garbage truck grinding and even music from bars and restaurants. Hey, taxi drivers! Horn honking is not permitted, except in situations of "imminent danger." Is the new code quieting things down out there? It's hard to say, but the complaining about noise has only gotten louder. In the 11 months following the new code's introduction, the city registered a 6 percent increase in noise complaints.

Modern cities can be so noisy that ornithologists have found birds warbling at the top of their lungs to be heard. Nightingales in Berlin have been documented singing up to 14 decibels louder than their counterparts in woody environs, in an attempt to make their songs audible above all the background noise. Yet the cacophony of modern life is hardly confined to metropolises like New York or Cairo, Egypt, where you literally have to shout on the street to make yourself heard.

In "Noise," Bean's protagonist and his family escape to the country for the weekend. Their getaway is besieged by a neighbor's farting leaf blower. Getting away from it all just isn't that easy.

"For 50 years, if people didn't like noise, and they had money, the solution has been: Move to the suburbs. Now we've made our suburbs noisy. They're no longer quiet refuges," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. "We got our half-acre lots, and now we have our weed whacker, our leaf blower, our hedge trimmer, our riding lawn mower, and then we hop in our car and drive on four- and six-lane highways past thousands of other suburbs to our place of work, noise-polluting every place we pass."

But you don't have to be an anti-noise crusader to suffer physical effects from noise, even if you're sleeping right through it. Scientists at Imperial College London monitored the blood pressure of 140 sleeping volunteers who lived near London's Heathrow airport. They discovered that subjects' blood pressure rose when a plane few overhead even when the subjects remained asleep. A study of 5,000 45-to-70-year-olds living near airports for at least five years found that they were at greater risk of suffering from hypertension, aka high blood pressure, than their counterparts in quieter realms. People with high blood pressure have an increased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and dementia. In 2007, WHO estimated that long-term exposure to traffic noise may account for 3 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease among Europeans.

Not only can too much loud noise damage your hearing, or disrupt your sleep, it can literally suck the life out of you thanks to the human body's fight-or-flight response. "The human auditory system is designed to serve as a means of warning against dangers in the environment," explains Louis Hagler, a retired internal medicine specialist in Oakland, Calif. "Noise above a certain level is perceived by the nervous system as a threat." The body responds to that threat with an outpouring of epinephrine and cortisol, the so-called stress hormones. "Your blood pressure goes up, your pulse rate goes up, there is a sudden outpouring of sugar into the bloodstream so the body is prepared to meet whatever threat there is in the environment."

If exposures are intermittent or rare, the body has the chance to return to normal. But if the exposure is unrelenting, the body doesn't have a chance to calm down, and blood pressure and heart rate may remain elevated, Hagler explains. That's why what seems like a mere annoyance can actually have long-term health effects. "There is no question that people who live near a busy roadway are experiencing effects on their blood pressure," says Hagler.

As Bean attests, once you tune into the din, it's hard to tune out again. "It's like an allergy -- once you get sensitized to one of these things then they all bother you, and then each one builds on the other," he says. And what's a mere nuisance to one person is another's bête noire. "There is no evidence that noise causes mental illness itself, but there is little doubt that it may accelerate or intensify some kind of mental disorders," explains Hagler. He adds that symptoms of exposure to noise pollution include anxiety, nervousness, nausea, headaches, emotional instability, argumentativeness and changes in mood. No wonder excessive noise has been used as a form of torture.

In ancient Rome, chariots were banned from the streets at night to prevent clattering wheels on stones from waking people up. In the United States, back in the '70s, when Bronzaft was documenting how children studying in classrooms next to elevated train tracks had delayed learning, there was an outpouring of official concern about the effects of noise, on both health and quality of life. In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act. The Environmental Protection Agency had its own Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which still exists today, but as an unfunded skeleton. What happened? "A man got elected president named Ronald Reagan and everything stopped," says Bronzaft. The Gipper decided that noise was best regulated by cities and states, but federal funding to help them evaporated. Attempts to refund the office have failed.

Since the '80s, noise abatement, such as it is, has been subject to a hodgepodge of local regulations in towns and cities, on a piecemeal basis, banning gas-powered leaf blowers here or restricting construction hours there. You're in trouble in Florida if your car stereo can be plainly heard from more than 25 feet away. California cities including Berkeley, Santa Monica, Beverley Hills and Laguna Beach have restricted leaf blowers. Many communities deal with noise under more general nuisance laws. "Even if you have the law on your side, getting the police to enforce it can be the bigger challenge," says Richard Tur, 39, founder of, a Web resource for fighting local noise pollution. Beyond regulating highway and aircraft noise, the feds don't do much.

Meanwhile, the world continues to get louder. "The last century was the loudest in the history of the world," says Blomberg. "The last decade was the loudest decade in the history of the world without a question," he adds, citing rising populations and their attendant airplanes, cars, trucks, weed whackers, air conditioners and, yes, leaf blowers. Yet Blomberg is optimistic the future can be quieter than it is today.

"People assume that living in this advanced technological world, noise is the price we pay," he says. "Almost all our noises are related to technology. Only the barking dog is not related to technology." But he thinks that technological innovation can also quiet the din. He points to electric lawn equipment and hybrid and electric cars, and cites innovation in asphalt technology to help reduce highway noise, which mostly consists of the sound of wheels on the pavement.

Blomberg says he gets about 150 calls or e-mails per week from the noise-addled seeking some peace and quiet. He recommends confronting, nicely, noisemakers themselves and, if that doesn't work, getting a copy of a local noise or nuisance ordinance to make your case, or even approaching lawmakers about the racket. Blomberg led his own local noise pollution crusade back in the '90s against street cleaners that swept the street in front of his downtown apartment at 4 a.m., three days a week. Political organizing, including a petition drive and lobbying City Council members, got the street cleaning postponed to 6 a.m.

Since then, Blomberg has moved to a quieter neighborhood, where he mows his property with electric mowers (both battery and plug-in) and a push mower. He has outfitted his house with a quieter-model furnace, air conditioner and dishwasher. He recommends befriending your neighbors, as a way to stop many noise pollution problems before they start.

But not everyone can move where it's quieter. Noise pollution activist Tur, founder of Noise Off, which has 600 online community members, all fighting the loud and obnoxious, lives in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., near a major thoroughfare. "I pretty much live near a 'perfect storm' of noise pollution," he says. That's clear during our phone conversation, in which a siren is blaring the background. Tur has joined political clubs, spoken out at public meetings and lobbied local officials, as well as networked hundreds of activists. He has also installed soundproofing windows in his bedroom; they create a dead-air space between the inner and outer panes of glass, which muffles general traffic noise.

With little official relief in earshot, it's clear that finding relief from the din is left up to individuals, whether through grass-roots organizing or buying a quieter lawn mower. We may not, however, want to follow the lead of Bean, for whom the degrading indignities of life are concentrated in the car alarm.

"The whole purpose of car alarms is to make money for the people who manufacture and install them," he says, fuming. "They don't prevent theft." (He's right, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.) In New York City, car alarms can legally blare for three minutes. Bean wants the city to ban them outright, but doesn't have a lot of faith in that happening any time soon. "If people in New York City destroyed or severely damaged every car whose alarm went off for any time at all, except during a burglary or theft, I think people would disconnect their alarms," he says. "Then this whole thing would go away."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Science