MORRIS: Noise -- The Most Pervasive Pollutant

You've seen the TV ad. Two sleek dolphins gracefully soaring into the air in the ocean. Then gradually the dolphins metamporphize into a family on jet skis. Buy jet skis and you can ply the ocean as happily as porpoises, the ad insists. What it doesn't tell us is that dolphins see the world through sound waves. The roar of jet skis deafens them. Wherever jet skiers congregate, dolphins flee.And that is the point about noise, whether it comes from jet skis, airplanes, snowmobiles, leaf blowers, or traffic. It invades and sometimes, terrorizes. Noise is rapidly becoming the world's most pervasive pollutant. Canadian noise expert Winston Sydenborgh estimates that world noise levels are doubling every ten years.Noise maims. It inflames the lining of the stomach and the brain. It makes us anxious, tired and distracted. Psychologist Arline Bronzaft tracked the progress of children at an elementary school in Manhattan located next to an elevated train. The children exposed to train noise were one year behind in reading levels compared to those who went to classes on the quiet side of the building.Noise diminishes our sense of community. In one famous experiment a man with a cast on his arm dropped parcels in the street next to noisy construction. No one stopped to help him. When the same man dropped his packages on a quiet road, he was inundated with offers to help. Noise numbers altruism and breeds aggression and hostility."Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience", said former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. William H. Stewart. "Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere."Some 25 years ago Congress enacted the Noise Control Act and asked the EPA to identify and regulate sources of noise. By 1982 1100 states and cities had active noise control efforts. Ronald Reagan put an end to federal efforts in that area. All the EPA studies on noise have been destroyed. By the mid 1990s many Americans have come to believe that making noise is a constitutional right. We think of noise as free speech.As in the jet skis ad, we now assume that noise is part of nature. Two thousand snowmobiles a day now enter Yellowstone National Park during the winter. "For snowmobilers, Yellowstone has become an experience they don't want to miss", Bill Butts, general manager of Flagg Ranch, a hotel at the Park's southern entrance told the New York Times. Why? "(T)here's the solitude". Riding a screaming snowmobile at 50 miles per hour through the woods has become the way in which we commune with nature.The dolphins can't fight back. We can. The noise wars have begun. Grassroots efforts are springing up around the world. The Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign began in 1991 in England. In Toronto the Citizens Coalition Against Noise was founded in 1994. Project Quiet Yards began in the U.S. two years ago.Dozens of communities are battling airport expansions. Dozens more have initiated traffic calming efforts to reduce the flow of cars in residential areas. In upstate New York several rural communities have banned jet skis. Others allow only electric motors on boats. A few days ago the city council of Los Angeles banned the use of leaf blowers within 500 feet of a residence.Says Cindy Davidson, founder of the Toronto group, "We're what the anti-smoking campaign was 10 years ago. It's still socially acceptable to go out and make noise. But people are fighting back." Harriet Barlow, founder of the New York based National Clearinghouse Against Noise Pollution, talks about the phenomenon of "second hand noise". Her attitude? "Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves."

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