Noise is often characterized as a nuisance. But specialists have long known that its ill effects can be far more serious than an annoying disturbance. Decades ago Karl Kryter wrote about impacts on “nonauditory systems”, commenting that the second-order reactions were “perhaps more important from a health viewpoint” than harm to hearing, which was then also shown to be serious. In 2015 Wolfgang Babisch, formerly of the Department of Environmental Hygiene of Germany’s federal environmental agency, described for the American Society of Acoustics how noise can hurt the heart, cause diabetes, and cause “dysregulation” of the hormone system.
Quiet Communities was contacted by the mother of an autistic child, whose home was subject to the noise of gas-powered lawn maintenance by neighbors. The child was terrified by the onslaught. We have heard from people who cannot frequent restaurants that play loud music; who cannot get public officials to act on extreme, chronic, disabling intrusions of sound into their lives. These are negations of the person. In any sensible tradition of law, there would be compensation, deterrence. In advanced systems our laws intelligently regulate to bring about better design of products and the rules of interaction in daily life. Noise has a systemic impact. Wildlife experts also see its harms.
We have not yet evolved widely-applied law to sensibly address the issue. We have not evolved the standards, norms or rules that we need, although the technologies for quieter lives are available or developable. Why not?
The early EPA saw noise as a species of air pollution, and developed programs to address it. Much of what we do now have in terms of standards comes from that era. But during Reagan’s administration the program was defunded. It has not been restarted even though the Congressional mandate to have a national program has never been rescinded.
If people don’t even know about this, perhaps they will now join with the call to restore our national effort. If they know about it but don’t think it’s that important, perhaps our suggestion that they take another look at the facts will help. And if they think it is just too low on the long list of things we need to do, perhaps they will consider that this is an egregious violation of our system of laws. Its example renders our general effort to govern ourselves seem an arbitrary act. Addressing it is part of restoring the use of our democracy to its former purposes – to develop the things society needs.
There are many tools we can use, to evolve reasonable responsibility: liability, regulation, codes, standards, guidance, assistance, monitoring, prevention, education. Not having a federal program that helps each state develop programs, assists businesses with redesign, that educates and gets good science done, is like a big gaping hole in the fabric of our protections, the mending of which is long overdue.
That the anti-noise and quiet groups have united around a Quiet Petition is not a noisy response. There is no extreme proposal here. It is a call for attention to all thoughtful people. It springs from a belief that once the attention of thoughtful people is engaged they can see how it makes no sense for us to continue to tolerate the darkening of a light we once had.
We as a society can take action. We are not saving anything by pinching our pennies here. Large corporations can adjust and we can help small businesses through the transition we need.
The quiet people hope to effect a transition in perspective, (in other words: to wake people up!). Instead of thinking that leaf blowers are a “First World Problem”, an annoyance to comfortable suburbans, people can see that worker wearing that gas engine, with combustion byproducts in his breathing zone and hammering in his ears all day. For every noisy event or place, people should imagine what it is doing to the hearing-impaired, to the sensitive. And people should see that noise often comes with pollution and hazardous wastes.
When the law does not address an issue, victims are doubly harmed. They experience the biophysical impacts and are made to feel invisible, unimportant. The QC Legal Advisory Committee has the hope of helping to restore dignity to those who are harmed, to instill the respect for the vulnerable that motivates preventive action.
Who says we cannot shake off the illusion that we cannot act? The American tradition has had wave after wave of action in the public interest, of representative and effective democracy. There is a long tradition we can draw on to realize there is no reason to think it is impossible to amass the public will to restore our programs.
Outrage about the reckless act of shutting down the socially important effort to address widely-shared insults is understandable. But perhaps the calm demeanor of the Quiet Coalition is appropriate, and the sickly silence on this issue can be dispelled by speaking up. Perhaps it isn’t necessary to get noisy for intelligent people to hear. Perhaps it will be enough that the Quiet People are saying: Listen: Noise is not just detracting from quality of life but harming living things!
But they should not be the only ones petitioning the government by themselves. They might be too quiet to make the difference we need: they need our help. We can add our names as supporters of the Quiet Petition, as listeners to the Quiet Coalition. We can ask, too, for restoration of what we once had that was wrongly taken away. We too can raise our voices in memory of a government wise enough to invest in preventing problems like these, and in support of the philosophy that it is most efficient, most wise, to invest sensibly in the great public interest, and prevent harm where you know it recurs.
Rick Reibstein, JD