Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 12, 2010

Our polluted soundscape

When I walked across the Kansas State University campus recently, I was struck by the beauty of the red, copper and yellow leaves against the native limestone buildings and the still-blooming rose bushes, chrysanthemums and cockscombs. The sound of the singing birds and scolding squirrels was like music to my ears. If I really stopped to listen, I could even hear the soft sound of crickets chirping in the grass.

But my quiet walk was short-lived. First came the thumping bass from a passing car, then the loud hum of one of the University's air-conditioning coolers and finally the back-up alarm of a vehicle. As I got closer to my building, I was greeted by the RAT-A-TAT-A of a jackhammer breaking up chunks of sidewalk.

It made my head pound!

Escaping inside - or so I thought - I was met in the hall by several students having lively conversations on their cell phones.

It was just the beginning of the day - and I already wanted to escape to a quieter place!

My family often says I'm overly-sensitive to noise. And they're right. My hearing - particularly in my right ear - was affected by a severe neurological illness in 1997. If a television is a bit loud, it grates on my nerves. Yet it doesn't have to be much lower before I can't make out the dialogue.

Although I'm particularly sensitive due to my illness, I'm not the only one affected by the constant ruckus and racket in our environment. These days, our ears are under constant assault.

But it's more than just aggravating. Continuous exposure to noise can be harmful to hearing, and research has shown that noise doesn't have to be very loud to lead to changes in blood pressure, sleep patterns and digestion.

Studies also document the harmful effects of noise on children's learning and behavior. Psychologist Arline Bronzaft, a volunteer noise consultant for New York City, conducted a study on the effects of train clatter on children's reading scores at a school located next to elevated train tracks.

"We found that by the sixth grade, the children exposed to elevated train noise were one year behind in reading, compared to the children on the quiet side of the building," she says.

Nature has given us ears that can handle a wide range of sound levels - everything from fingertips brushing lightly over the skin to a loud jet engine.

The unit used to measure the intensity of sound is the Bel - named after telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Because the Bel is a large unit, the decibel (1/10 of a Bel and abbreviated dB) is more commonly used. Conversation typically generates about 60 dB. Any sound above 85 dB can cause hearing loss. Lawn mowers, car horns, power saws, rock concerts, jet engines, jackhammers, gunshots and firecrackers all produce sounds above that level. No wonder the campus jackhammer and the power saw husband Art was using last weekend had my ears ringing for hours afterward.

While Art isn't particularly sensitive to loud sounds, even he had an experience this past week that left him scratching his head. He was driving across campus to pick up a friend for lunch when he passed a young man wearing earphones - and he could hear the music from 20 feet away over the sound of the engine. Art said he wondered what that fellow's hearing would be like in a few years.

When it is really quiet, we notice it because it's so unusual. My brother Dave was amazed by how quiet it was after a severe ice storm caused major power outages across parts of the state a couple of years ago.

"There was no humming refrigerator, no furnace coming on," he said. "It was really eerie."

Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC), says on the group's website that it's time for a new attitude toward noise. He wants us to think of it as trash.

"If you were to ask an audience, 'Is it acceptable to throw litter out the window?' Nobody will say yes," Blomberg says. "That's what I want to create for noise."

He thinks we should think of a cell phone as a cigarette and treat it the same way.

" ... In public places where you wouldn't smoke, you also don't use a cell phone," he says.

"We're not to the point yet that as a culture we've refocused our energy into caring for our soundscape like we care for landscape, but we're getting there," he says.

I sure hope so!

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