Why Noise Pollution Is More Dangerous Than We Think
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The Backstory | The Backstory | Episode 17
Why Noise Pollution Is More Dangerous Than We Think
David Owen reports on noise pollution, an intangible phenomenon with serious costs to human health and wildlife.
Read the story.
Released on 05/08/2019
[paper crumpling]
A pair of musician's earplugs.
Silicone earplugs.
Sleep buds.
Hear phones.
When all else fails these are hearing aids.
I'm not really quite ready for it yet
but I have a pair.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about hearing loss.
I have a connection with hearing loss.
My grandmother when she was a young woman,
a suitor took her hunting in a boat
and rested his shotgun on her shoulder.
And fired and deafened her for the rest of her life.
The more I learned about it the more I was amazed.
Not only how hearing works but also that I could still hear
at all given all the bad things that I had done
to my ears through especially in my adolescence.
All the firecrackers that my friends
and I threw at each other.
All the rock concerts that we went to.
All the lawns that I mowed without
any kind of hearing protection.
It's phenomenal given that we evolved
in a completely different sound environment.
It's astonishing that our ears,
anybody's ears work at all.
People who live in New York live surrounded by sound.
You walk down the street there's a siren going by.
There are idiots honking at people
who cannot be affected by a car.
There is somebody with a jackhammer tearing up
the street right next to you.
There are people playing music super loud.
We all kind of think of it
as you're walking down the street.
This is part of what makes New York cool.
But Les Blomberg,
founder of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse,
he said to me that if we could see
the sound that we generate it would look like litter.
It says that we were driving through
the countryside throwing things out of the car.
These noises both individual
and cumulatively have health impacts.
I went to see a group in Paris
that measures the noise pollution
in the Greater Paris area.
One of the things they found is that the loudest areas
are on the transportation paths.
So roadways, train lines, in the flight paths of airports.
People who live in those places have
a significantly higher incidence of a long list of diseases.
Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure.
Sleeping problems, birth related problems.
Inability to pay attention at work.
Health consequences, life quality consequences
that arise just from being exposed to noise.
The people in Paris and the World Health Organization
have estimates of how much life
is actually lost as a result to sound.
It's measured in years and so
if you live in a noisy area
it actually has an impact on longevity.
In the 1970s up in Innwood
in the northern part of Manhattan
there is a elevated train track that's within
a couple hundred feet of the school
and it bothers the students.
They can't study.
Students on the side of the building that was closest
to the tracks by sixth grade were almost
a full year behind students on the quieter side
of the building in terms of their reading ability.
Every few minutes the teacher would have
to stop for 30 seconds because the train was so loud
that the students couldn't hear her.
The Transit Authority eventually installed
rubber pads between the rails.
The school put acoustic sound absorbing
acoustic tiles in the ceilings of the classrooms.
And remarkably the reading scores then rose again
to where they were the same on both sides of the building.
[school bell ringing]
The world before we came along was a much quieter,
much darker place.
Now over a relatively short period of time
basically since the Industrial Revolution
we've added these extraordinary stressors
to ourselves and then also to all
the other creatures in the world.
A number of years ago a group of scientists
in Idaho did an experiment on birds during migration season.
They played road noise through loud speakers.
[Woman] The road is about 700 meters long
and it's made out of 15 different speakers
that are all playing road noise at the same time.
And what they found was that it had a huge impact.
The number of birds fell by a significant percentage
and then even among birds that stayed
they put on less weight than they should have been
at that time of season.
And it wasn't even a very loud sound level.
I think to a New Yorker
it might almost have sounded soothing.
Where we have an even bigger impact on wildlife
is under the water where we can't see it in the oceans.
Creatures that live underwater they depend
on their hearing.
They can hear for hundreds hundreds of miles.
So sound can play a much more important part
for them than it does for humans.
There was a scientific study in Canada
where scientists were measuring levels
of stress hormones in whale poop.
They had trained dogs that could sniff whale poop over
the side of a boat and they were collecting it.
What they found was that there was
a sudden dramatic drop in the levels
of stress hormones in whale poop.
It dropped and then it picked up again
and what had happened in between was 9/11.
The world got very quiet.
Ocean shipping halted.
The noise levels in the ocean dropped
and when that human generated noise was gone stress levels
in those creatures fell.
The stress levels that they had been measuring
was not normal for those creatures.
It was something that was caused
by human sound generated under the sea.
Sound that we're not even aware of.
The sound of ships going by.
Overhead too ordinarily I'm not even aware
of airplanes flying overhead.
In the week after 9/11 I suddenly saw it is really quiet.
What's different?
And realized that air traffic had been halted.
And so this sound
that I had never really consciously noticed before.
As soon as it was gone
I realized how significant it had been.
[car horn honking]
One difficulty with sound once you decide
to regulate it is how you do it.
New York City has an immense sound ordinance
but is the city suddenly quieter than it was a decade ago
or 20 years ago?
It's very hard to enforce even strict requirements.
The police have to be trained in acoustics.
And they have to be equipped
with devices that enable them to do it.
They have to care enough to actually do it.
There's some researchers at NYU in a program called SONYC.
S O N Y C.
They're measuring sound levels in New York.
They have some sensors that they placed around
in various places in the city and they're adding more.
[slow electronic music]
With help from citizen scientists
you can go online and participate.
They're training algorithms to identify sound sources.
So their hope eventually is to have
a system that monitors sound levels in New York.
It can detect when sound levels
are higher than are supposed to be allowed.
And they can identify exactly what the source is
by having trained this algorithm to know
the difference between the jackhammer and a police siren.
When I was in Paris one of the researchers
that I was talking to said a single person
on a motorcycle in the middle
of the night riding across Paris
can wake up thousands of people.
And you see this one person on one device
at one moment in the night has this effect
on thousands of people.
They all wake up.
Maybe they can't go back to sleep.
They're not able to pay attention as well
and work the next day or at school the next day.
So just this one little act.
A careless act has consequences.
We think in terms of air pollution,
water pollution.
We don't think of these less tangible impacts
that we have but sound is one of them
and loud sound doesn't affect just us.
It also affects other living things.
[whale singing]
[dramatic music]
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