it takes a "silent village" to harm a child

By Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly – Volume 24, Number 1 (1999)

a silent village begets a noisy community

Dr. Allen Greene, President of Sane Aviation for Everyone (SAFE) besieges me daily with these questions: “Why don’t the people of my community speak up about the thunderous noises from the planes above? Why do they remain silent? Why don’t they do something about it?” In trying to formulate some answers to these questions, I was struck by some comments I had recently read or heard. John Dallas in his thoughtful article “For a community, silence isn’t always golden,” (Norwood News, 1998) rightly concludes that silence and quiet cannot be used as synonyms at all times. “Peace and quiet is rarely, if ever, the object of the misgivings that silence is. Peace and quiet is what we have when we don’t keep quiet about things that subvert peace. Silence is what we have when we’re quiet…in the face of things that we know to be wrong.” Ralph Nader in a talk before a group celebrating the 25th anniversary of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) on November 19, 1998, stated that he wasn’t surprised that one person could make a difference but what he wondered about was whether many people would make a difference.

Then I reflected on an expression frequently uttered during the 1960’s: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” This expression, as well as the statements of Ralph Nader and John Dallas and the questions of Allen Greene, speak eloquently to the indifference of the vast majority of our society who refuses to actively participate in correcting the many ills that surround us. More specifically, on the matter of noise pollution, we have been overwhelmed by a mighty citizen silence — a silence that can potentially deafen and harm us all, but especially the children.

Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote that it took a village to raise a child. Let me add that it takes a “silent village” to harm a child. Who are these villagers who have remained silent as their children have been engulfed by dangerous and harmful noises? They are the parents who hopelessly watch as their children shudder in response to the roar of overhead jets and helicopters; parents who haven’t urged manufacturers to stop producing squeaky toys that reach levels as high as 110 decibels, or musical toys that exceed 125 decibels; parents who haven’t asked movie theater owners to lower the loud sounds emanating from the screens or boycotted films that expose their children to loud and ear-splitting sounds; parents who allow children to spend hours in video arcades where the sounds reach deafening levels; parents who in not warning their children to lower their tape players or headsets, make them vulnerable to the type of accident that took the life of young thirteen year old, whose loud music blocked out the sound of an oncoming freight train (April, 1997).

They are the doctors and nurses who haven’t demanded quieter neonatal units; they are the educators who haven’t insisted upon quieter classrooms. They are the farmers who haven’t educated their children to protect themselves from excessively noisy farm equipment; they are the manufacturers who haven’t set appropriate emission standards for their products. They are the legislators, who have failed to monitor noise in keeping with the statement in the Noise Control Act of 1972 that finds: “(1) that inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population, particularly in urban areas.”

All the villagers must take responsibility for the silence that has permitted President Bill Clinton and the Congress to undermine the federal office that was established “…to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.” All of them have been derelict in their duties and obligations toward their children and must take some responsibility for failing to speak out against the noise pollutant that is proving hazardous to their children’s development and well-being.

Yet, in partial defense of the parents, the educators, and many of the villagers, it should be noted they have not yet been educated on the harmful effects of noise. Also those citizens who have complained about noise, especially residents near noisy airports, have found that government officials have dismissed their complaints, and so they have learned to suffer in silence.

a silence that cannot be forgiven

Manufacturers cannot and should not be forgiven for producing noisy products because they have the ability and the knowledge to design and manufacture quieter goods; nor should government officials because it is their responsibility to be more aware of the potential harm caused by noisy products. For example, when the New York City Transit Authority ordered subway trains in the late 1980’s, the manufacturers were going to install motors in these trains that were twice as loud as those delivered to other cities. How could the companies offer noisier traction motors to a city whose transit riders and residents have long complained about noisy trains? Why didn’t the New York City transit officials demand quieter motors? The transit agency’s own files (personal review of transit files) were replete with complaints from passengers and residents, even one dating back to April 19, 1916, when a public school principal informed the authority that train noise was interfering with student learning. Fortunately, concerned citizens intervened in the 1980’s and pressed for the quieter traction motors which indeed were installed. (Bronzaft, 1986)

Nancy Nadler (1997) writes about toys that may be harmful to young children’s ears. She found that some squeaky toys emit sounds as high as 110 dBA; some toy phones exceed 120 dBA, and toys discharging firearm sounds can be as loud as 150 dBA. How can toy manufacturers produce toys that exceed sound levels that are known to be dangerously loud? More importantly how can a government agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, indicate that “…it does not currently have regulations that address the loudness of toys?” (Nadler, 1997)

At the federal level, government officials have access to data that demonstrate the hazards of noise, especially to children, but rather than give credence to these data, persist in claiming that researchers have not yet solidly confirmed the relationship between noise and health. Not only have these officials given short shrift to the growing body of literature that suggests a relationship between noise and adverse mental and physical health effects, but they refuse to provide sufficient dollars to probe the relationship in greater detail. Gary Evans, noted noise researcher, had to reach out to a private source in the United States, the Swedish government and a German research foundation to conduct his work on the relationship between chronic noise and psychological stress in children.

By not allowing the appropriate studies to be conducted, the federal government can maintain its position that additional studies are needed to prove the noise/health link. Or, as in the case of soundproofing schools near airports, the FAA moves at a snail’s pace to abate the noise, despite conceding that it is responsible for insulating school buildings “against the impact of jet noise.” (Long Island Journal, July 30, 1987).

Dr. Carol Rubin of the Centers for Disease Control believes that “…the many confounding factors embodied in the alleged health consequences (hypertension, birth defects, mental health problems, etc.) would prevent any success in pinpointing aircraft noise as the main culprit.” Furthermore, “Dr. Rubin is of the opinion that research on non-auditory health effects is not practical and that such investigations are bound to reach non-findings.” (Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise, FICAN, 1998). After stating her opinion, she admonished members of FICAN for contemplating such research. It is especially shocking to this researcher that a scientist would state beforehand that future investigations would not yield significant findings. Just imagine if all scientists assumed that posture!

On page 15 of the February 1998 annual report of the Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise, the following is stated: “Statistically significant cardiovascular changes also have been demonstrated in some studies of children in noisy schools, but without longitudinal studies, there is no way of knowing whether these changes have any significance for health.” (Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise, 1998). The statement most likely refers to the Evans studies in which he reported cardiovascular and neuroendocrine changes as indices of stress in elementary school children chronically exposed to aircraft noise.

Whereas Evans and his colCenters (1995) deem their research findings sobering when one considers how many schoolchildren are exposed to comparable noise levels, the government deprecates their findings because they were not the result of research carried out over a long period of time. In other words, longitudinal studies would enable researchers to learn whether early markers of stress eventually lead to disease. Yet, why should children be exposed in the present to conditions that elicit stress and physiological markers that foretell potential disorders? Furthermore, do parents really want to have their children exposed to noise over time to learn whether the stress indicators of childhood result in hypertension and other diseases in adulthood?

Additionally, the Federal Interagency on Aviation Noise ( 1998) defends its insensitivity to noise impacts on school-aged children by stating: “It is important to note that aircraft are not the only sources contributing to noisy school environments.” (page 21). By acknowledging that there are other intrusions upon classroom learning, is FICAN attempting to rationalize its laxity in adequately addressing the issue of aircraft noise incursions? Does one wrong justify another?

It must be reiterated, as others have already stated, that Europeans have taken and continue to assume a leadership role in abating noise. The European Union, aiming to “…limit the growing problem of aircraft noise around Europe’s congested airports…,” plans to restrict old noisier American aircraft inside European Union airspace (Tucker, 1998). Said an official of the European Commission: “The last thing we want is to relax environmental standards.” Of course the Federal Aviation Administration and United States airlines are disputing the action taken by the European Union, arguing that it stemmed from a desire to protect Europe’s Airbus 300 model. Whatever the motive, the European move reflects greater awareness of noise pollution — an awareness that should be echoed by American airlines and federal agencies. Until they do, they will be considered part of the problem, not part of the solution to attenuating noise pollution.

let us review the literature on noise and children

Research has found that infants exposed to continuous noise in neonatal intensive units may suffer some hearing loss and may experience a disruption in normal growth and development. (Pediatrics, 1997). Nancy Shashaty, formerly a doctor with the Hospital for Sick Children, was quoted as finding that children who had been exposed to excessive noise in the neonatal intensive care unit “…have a much higher percentage of hyperactivity and attentional problems in later childhood.” (Adkins, 1998) Adkins also notes that the Hospital for Sick Children has instituted quiet times at its hospital; during these quiet periods radios are turned off or soft music is played and therapies, unless urgent, do not take place.

Children are imperiled by noises within the home, from noisy toys to loud stereos and televisions to loud voices, and noises that come into the home from outside sources (equipment, tools, transportation). Wachs and Gruen (1982) reported that children’s cognitive and language developments are impaired in noisy households. According to Evans and Lepore (1993), large numbers of children in the United States are being exposed to “levels of ambient noise that are not only a threat to hearing but may have harmful effects on physiological and cognitive development.” “Chronic exposure to aircraft noise elevated psychophysiological stress (resting blood pressure and overnight epinephrine and norepinephrine)…over a 2-year period in 9- to 11-year-old children.” (Evans, Bullinger and Hygge, 1998).

Children not only live near highways, railroads and airports but also attend day-care centers and schools near their noise sources. Hambrick-Dixon (1986) found that preschoolers attending day-care centers near New York’s noisy elevated train tracks were impaired in their psychomotor performance. As to whether children who go to a school under flight paths suffer some hearing loss, the data of one study (Chen and Chen, 1993) suggest hearing ability was significantly worse in children who went to a school under flight paths. On the other hand, a later study (Wu, Lai, Shen, Yu, and Chang, 1995) did not find a relationship between exposure to aircraft noise and hearing loss. The findings that cognitive, language and learning skills were impeded, in those children who sat in classrooms where the learning process was constantly interrupted by overhead jets or elevated trains passing by are more consistent (Evans & Maxwell, 1997; Bronzaft, 1981; Bronzaft & McCarthy, 1975).

Even when there are no external sources of noise to disrupt the educational process in the classroom, there are many indoor sources of noise to contend with: defective heating and ventilating equipment, faulty electrical duct work, high-ceilings without proper acoustic treatments, improperly designed or insulated walls and partitions, poorly sealed doors, and overcrowded classes. To override the classroom noises, teachers often raise their voices, and some even shout. School gymnasia and cafeterias are especially noisy, and in these settings teachers often use bells, buzzers, and whistles to get the children’s attention. This only adds to the noise level. In a presentation on speech communication in elementary school classrooms, participants stressed that the acoustical environment of the classroom is an important variable contributing to academic achievement (The Acoustical Society of America, 133rd meeting, June 17, 1997). Underscoring the importance of a quieter interior classroom environment was the finding in a recent study by Maxwell and Evans (1999) in which preschoolers, whose classrooms were “too loud,” performed more poorly in language usage and understanding.

Noises are not confined solely to urban settings. Broste, et al. (1989) report … “that teenaged school children who are actively involved in farm work have increased prevalence of mild hearing loss and early noise-induced hearing loss.” When looking at hearing loss among women in a farming community, Theiler and Lankford (Scott, March 16, 1998) recalled “some significant findings for a 6-year-old girl who was tested. The girl had an apparent 20dB loss at 6,000Hz in both ears. The father reported that his daughter loved to ride on tractor with him during the summer.”

It wasn’t just the fact that the jet ski nearly hit Ms. Greene and her granddaughter when they were swimming in the Florida Keys but the high-pitched whine shattered the quiet surroundings

(New York Times, June 22, 1998). Personal watercraft noises have been rapidly increasing as have noises from the leaf blowers that have become so popular in suburban communities. Also one should not forget that many airplanes are now flying over suburban neighborhoods. Smaller airports are growing larger as they become more attractive to owners of private jets. The noisy invader has moved into the suburbs. There appears to be no escape from this intruder.

Entertainment for youngsters continues to be extremely noisy. Not simply the toys (Nadler, 1997) but the movies, discos, stereo systems, and video arcades. Measuring the levels of two movies that attracted a large children’s audience, Sawhill and Brown (July 6, 1998) found that Godzilla shrieked at the edge of Central Park at 114 decibels and the shuttle took off from the asteroid in “Armageddon” at 117 decibels. This article then goes on to say that nearly 20,000 movie theaters are now equipped with state-of-the-art digital, which means that one can experience the loud sounds throughout the theater. Plakke (1983) reported that some of the games he has measured in two arcades he visited reached levels of 111 dBA. Plakke also noticed that some of the arcade operators raise the volume of new games to attract the attention of potential players.

More recently older teenagers have been fitting their cars with high-powered “boom-boxes,” which adds tremendously to the noise level in their cars. When it comes to car noise, residents living near auto racing tracks describe the sounds as “…jet-like noises.” (Mendez, October 14, 1992). According to G. Michael Lewis, vice president of the National Hot Rod Association, his group represents 140 tracks throughout the country. Since many parents take their children along to these auto racing events, one could safely hypothesize that large numbers of children are being exposed to the high-volume noise at auto race tracks.


noise - robs us and our children of a decent quality of life

Sounds are constantly invading our space – phone beepers, horn-honking, loud music in the background as we shop or eat, loud appliances, and noisy neighbors at home and on the job. Several months ago I participated in a conference held in the Adirondacks. There was no television or phone in my room. Although I do recognize the importance of getting information, from the television or the phone, I must comment on how serene and restful it was to spend three days in this relatively quiet setting. I spent my spare time walking along quiet roads, thinking, and reading in my room at night. In chatting with my other conferees, they too felt, as I did, very restful at the completion of this conference, despite the fact that we had to work during this period of time. The quiet seemed to rejuvenate us.

Most of us can’t escape to such serene places on a regular basis. Rather, we have to rely on the peace and quiet of our homes. It is here that we can unwind for the day, listen to beautiful music, read, or engage in thoughtful conversation with members of our household. When we are deprived of these quiet times, we are essentially robbed of the ability to revitalize our bodies, mind and spirit.

All humans need quiet time, as well as restful sleep, for the body to recuperate, to repair itself. Without such time, we risk physical and mental breakdown. This is true for children as well. They need a quiet time and place to study, to read, to reflect, to think, and to slow down.

However, we and our children cannot depend on tranquility at home. There are so many noises invading our living space — noise from helicopters and jets, from nearby bars and discos, from construction, from traffic, from jet skis, from leaf blowers. How might this loss of tranquility affect us and our children?

In a recent study (Bronzaft, et al., 1998) two groups of residents, one living within a flight path of a major airport and the other in a nonflight area, were asked to complete a general wellness questionnaire that contained some questions on noise. Individuals living in the path flight path were far more bothered by noises, especially aircraft noise. There were significant differences between the two groups, with a higher proportion of individuals from the flight pattern area reporting that noise interfered with their daily activities. These people stated that they were unable to keep their windows opened, sleep, listen to radio or television, talk on the telephone or converse with others at home. Also many of the individuals in the flight pattern community perceived themselves to be in poorer health.

Although the individuals living with overhead jet noise had not evidenced actual physical disorders, the fact that many of these residents perceived their health as poorer may indicate future health problems. However, one should not overlook the fact that the jet noise has diminished their quality of life. The aircraft noise had not yet elicited physical ailments in these community dwellers, but it most certainly has prevented them from living the good life to which they are entitled. In other words, noise may not kill but it certainly makes living far less pleasant. Similarly deprived of a good quality of life are the millions of people across this country who are besieged daily by aircraft noise, helicopter noise, highway noise, jet skis, leaf blowers, or noisy neighbors.

Interference in daily activities and diminished quality of life might serve to elevate levels of stress. Wachs and Camli (1991) have reported that parents who live with lower levels of stress have better involvement with their children; there is also “greater verbal interaction between parent and child and more responsivity to the child’s needs.” Noise sources that raise stress levels might adversely affect parent-child relationships and, in turn, faulty parent-child relationships might prove harmful to children’s development.

Children have also expressed their feelings about the noises in their environments and: “…children living proximate to a major airport reported more annoyance and a lower quality of life than did children in quiet communities” (Evans, Hygge and Bullinger, 1995). In the posters drawn by children for the Center’s 1998-99 calendar on noise, children vividly depicted their dislike of the noises surrounding them. That children are disturbed by noises was illustrated in their drawings of children holding their ears, of tears falling done a child’s sad face, and in anguished facial expressions. When the Center announced its poster contest in one school district in Brooklyn, New York, an auditorium of children was given the opportunity to speak out on noise. Their voices spoke eloquently to how bothered they were by the many noises in their environment.

a call to the villagers to break their silence

The Center for Hearing and Communication, through it Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly, is again alerting its readers to the perils of noise and urging them to lift their voices in harmony against the noise pollutant, especially for the sake of our children. President Clinton must be asked to act in accordance with the Noise Control Act and refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC). Laws are to be obeyed and enforced. Simultaneously, the President must work with Congress to update the Noise Control Act so that it is in keeping with present knowledge with respect to the adverse impacts of noise and to the available techniques to abate noise emissions; techniques that might include the method to quiet road surfaces, a major source of traffic noise, that was discussed on ABC World News Tonight (December 3, 1998).

Last year the Center had asked its readers to write to their federal legislators to support two bills that would refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Recognizing that the office is still opened, though in skeletal form, and that the President can simply provide funds for the office by adding the item to his budget, the Center asks you to send a letter ( sample letter on page 00) to the President urging him to refund ONAC. With this letter you will be joining the growing number of villagers who have pledged to abandon their silence on noise. By asking to reestablish an office that validated noise as a serious environmental pollutant, you will certainly become part of the solution.

“On the matter of noise pollution, we have been overwhelmed by a mighty citizen silence.”

“…Noise may not kill, but it certainly makes living far less pleasant.”

“Noise sources that raise stress levels might adversely affect parent-child relationships….”

 S A M P L E   L E T T E R

The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

Research has demonstrated that noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss in the 28 million Americans with impaired hearing. You are numbered amongst this population. Studies have also suggested that noise is linked to physiological and psychological disorders. Noise has been found to be especially hazardous for young children, interfering with language acquisition, cognition, and learning. To the millions of people who live with noise daily, especially residents near airports, noise has interfered with their ability to carry out daily activities, diminishing their quality of life.

In 1972, the Noise Control Act was passed and Congress declared that “it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.” In keeping with that policy, the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) in the EPA was established. The office did an excellent job in educating people to the dangers of noise through its pamphlets, posters, school programs and public service announcements. The office also assisted states and cities with their noise efforts and was charged with identifying major noise sources and creating noise emission standards.

Despite the growing awareness in the 1970’s that noise was a hazardous pollutant, former President Reagan largely terminated the funding for this office. There is but a “skeleton” office left. Noise problems are increasing as we move into the 21st Century and we are asking you to refund ONAC by allocating five million dollars for that office in your next budget. Knowing that this amount can’t possibly cover the expenses of the broad spectrum of activities stipulated in the Noise Control Act, we would like the office to focus on the section of the Noise Control Act that deals with “Quiet Communities, research, and public information.” By educating the public on the hazards of noise, by supporting research programs, and lending assistance to cities and states, the Office would be carrying out, in part, its mandate under the law to promote a quieter and safer environment for all of us.

The other sections of the Noise Control Act, e.g. labeling, noise emission standards, noise sources, equally important in creating a quieter environment, require some updating. Since the Noise Control Act was passed, there has been a considerable growth in noise sources as well as the knowledge to abate and mitigate the noise. A group of concerned legislators have been preparing federal legislation that will more effectively deal with the growing noise problem and I hope your office will offer them some assistance.

I urge you to use your authority to refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control. By so doing you will be contributing significantly to combating a pollutant that is dangerous to the physical and mental well-being of this nation’s citizens.


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