Silence Noise Pollution

Research shows that exposure to constant noise can hurt children’s mental development.

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Ah, the tranquillity of small-town Vermont! That is, if you don't count the ear-splitting whir of the street-sweeper truck that crept up and down the street outside of Les Blomberg's home in Montpelier three times a week at 4 a.m. The noise—described by Blomberg as "loud as a NASCAR racecar but at a speed of 5 miles per hour"—riled him so much that he turned activist to persuade the city to reschedule street sweeping to begin at 6 a.m. He also founded the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, an organization that provides research and information to others whose pleas for quiet might otherwise fall on deaf ears.

Hearing loss, in fact, is the most obvious medical consequence of noise pollution, but it is hardly the only one, explains environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft. In her research, Bronzaft found that constant noise exposure can impede children's learning ability and cognitive development. And beyond all that, periodically, "you've got to take a break from sound," says Bronzaft. "We need some serenity in our lives."

The bad news, says Blomberg, is that "the last century was the noisiest in the history of the world, the fossil fuel era of noise." The good news, he continues, is that the greener we get, the quieter we'll also get. Electric cars and lawn equipment, for instance, make less noise, as do more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Improved technology can also provide some measure of solace. Fire engines and police cars could replace those eardrum-busting sirens with models that better aim the sound in one direction, limiting spillover noise. And you can turn down the volume inside by replacing noisy household appliances with quieter, energy-conserving models.

"I don't think you can name a noise source that I can't find a way to make it quieter," says Blomberg. But the real challenge is to change people's attitudes. "In the 1960s, we made it unacceptable to throw litter out the window of your car," he says. Today it's time to recognize that "noise is to the soundscape as litter is to the landscape." The goal is to "create a culture where you do not throw your aural litter out the window."