path to quiet: don't just say "no" to noise, say "yes" to quiet

By Nancy B. Nadler, M.E.D., M.A. | Hearing Health Quarterly – Special Edition (2001)

Noise is commonly defined as “unwanted sound.” We have known for a long time that noise is harmful to one’s hearing, health and the quality of life. In fact, as far back as 1930, the Noise Abatement Commission of New York City reported the following effects of noise on humans:

  1. Hearing is apt to be impaired in those exposed to constant loud noises.
  2. Noise interferes seriously with the efficiency of the worker. It lessens attention and makes concentration upon any task difficult.
  3. In the attempt to overcome the effect of noise, great strain is put upon the nervous system, leading to neurasthenic and psychasthenic states, and necessitating frequent recuperation in the country to maintain mental efficiency and alertness.
  4. Noise interferes seriously with sleep, even though in some cases it appears that the system is able to adjust itself so that wakefulness does not result.
  5. It is well established that, in addition to these other evil effects, the normal development of infants and young children is seriously interfered with by constant loud noises. (Brown, 1930).

Some forty years later, Dr. William H. Stewart, former U.S. Surgeon General stated: “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere. When considering the impact of noise on health, in his keynote address to the 1968 Conference on “Noise as a Public Health Hazard” Dr. Stewart added: “Must we wait until we prove every link in the chain of observation?… In protecting health, absolute proof comes late. To wait for it is to invite disaster or to prolong suffering unnecessarily.” In 1972, the Noise Control Act was passed and Congress declared: “…it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”

We know that noise hurts – our hearing, our health and our quality of life. The message of the Noise Center of the Center for Hearing and Communication has been clear – turn down the volume, limit exposure to noise, and wear hearing protection to protect yourself from this pervasive pollutant. In other words, just say “no” to noise.

Yet our soundscape grows noisier every day. Even thirty years ago, one scholar found that background noise was increasing nationwide at the rate of one decibel a year (on the A- weighted scale)1 and more recently, a study by the Center for Hearing and Communication found that the numbers of people failing hearing screenings has increased steadily over the last twenty years.

Perhaps then, it is not enough to tell people that noise hurts. We must also look at what we gain when noise is not present – the intrinsic benefits of quiet. When quiet is defined, it is associated with words such as calm, tranquility, gentleness, easygoing, unobtrusive. Quiet is central to meditation, which has been shown to improve health and overall well-being. The phrase “peace and quiet” is often used to reflect what so many of us seek after a hectic day at home or at work and suggests that one cannot have peace without quiet. When noise is limited, we not only reduce the negative effects associated with noise, but add the richness of quiet to our lives.

In each article in this issue of Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly, the authors clearly illustrate the impact of noise on our lives. Kathy Peck discusses the loudness level in nightclubs in her article, Dancing Till Deaf; Dr. Arline Bronzaft describes the harmful effects of aircraft noise to our communities and especially to our children in Aircraft Noise: The Ailment and the Treatment; and Dr Peggy Nelson looks at the effects of a noisy classroom on children’s learning in The Campaign for Improved Acoustics in Schools. Finally, Elliot Berger offers suggestions to protect our hearing from excessive noise in Hearing Protection -Sunglasses for the Ears.

Whether it is at home, at work or in recreational activities, continued exposure to noise presents a serious hazard. Imagine instead, that in each situation presented in these articles, quiet existed. Consider how the lives of those described would be different. Imagine your own life with periods of quiet built into each day. Take for example, a home at around 5 p.m. The television is on, perhaps the stereo is blaring upstairs, then the phone rings, one child pulls at your leg, another screams about a sibling knocking down a carefully designed block construction, all while you are trying to make dinner and help with the homework. Now, imagine the same home without the background noise. Turn off the television, turn down the volume on the stereo and lower the voices. Theodore Wachs (1993)studied the level of “noise confusion” in the home and its impact on early childhood development. Wachs concluded that high levels of noise, crowding and traffic patterns in the home were associated with lower caregiver attentiveness and responsibility. Noise, it seems, can affect the temperament and social interactions of children. Just like adults, children need quiet time at home, to create, learn, relax and just “be.”

Since its inception in 1996, International Noise Awareness Day (INAD) has highlighted the importance of quiet in our lives by urging participants to observe the “Quiet Diet” with one minute of no noise from 2:15 – 2:16 p.m., regardless of location. International Noise Awareness Day has grown to include participants in every state in the United States, as well as groups in 43 countries on every continent around the world. The goal remains the same – to educate the public about the harmful effects of noise on hearing, health and the quality of life. It is not enough to “just say no to noise,” we must also “say yes to quiet.”

We encourage participants of INAD to make time for quiet in their lives every day and urge individuals to transform noise awareness into a quiet reality for the new millennium.

James L. Hildebrand, Noise Pollution: An Introduction to the Problem and an Outline for Future Legal Research, 70 Colum. L. Rev. 652, 653 (1970). Citing another source, Hildebrand continues: “The strength of the general noise background in some of our communities is now four times what it was in 1956, and 32 times what it was in 1938.” Id.