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It gets on our nerves, under our skins and insults plenty of other sensibilities.
Is an ever-noisier world something we must learn to live with?
Not according to Les Blomberg, executive director of Montpelier-based Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. He wants us to take a stand.
On his group’s website, which tracks advances (and retreats) in the realm of volume reduction, Blomberg organizes advocacy into three major concerns: environmental health, “sovereignty” (the regulatory soundscape) and old-fashioned civility.
He elaborated, with specific examples, in a recent email interview. Edited excerpts:
Burlington Free Press: Vermont is generally considered to be a pretty quiet place. Are there any good reasons to be concerned about noise pollution here?
Les Blomberg: In general Vermont is a relatively quiet place, particularly if you compare it to New York City.
If you were comparing the noise to that of Vermont of 100 years ago, you would call today a noisy place. Acoustically, the main thing we did in the last 100 years is ravage our quiet lands with noise, particularly transportation noise.
There are actually few areas where you can sit for an hour and not hear a human-caused noise.
BFP: Why should we be concerned?
LB: Quiet in Vermont’s soundscape isn’t a policy decision. It is an accident of geography and economics. There is very little in our laws that ensures Vermont remains quiet. There is very little protection from noisy neighbors in Vermont.
Quiet isn’t a product you can buy. It is what exists until you or your neighbor shatters it. It only takes one noisy neighbor to destroy the quiet in a neighborhood.
BFP: When and where has noise emerged as a problem in Vermont, historically speaking?
LB: I don’t know when the first concern for the soundscape was registered in Vermont, but the first state law concerning noise (“Noise in the Nighttime” – see accompanying box) dates from the Civil War time.
BFP: That early?
LB: It was modified slightly in the late 19th century and again in the early 20th century, but has remained basically unchanged for 150 years, including the penalty: $50. Since the law only covers the nighttime, the primary reason for the law was probably to protect against sleep interference.
BFP: Daytime noises weren’t a problem?
LB: Early noise sources were likely industrial, along rivers and in towns, and resource extraction (timbering, quarrying), which would have been in more rural areas.
Rail was the early transportation noise. With the introduction of the car and airplane in the 20th century, that noise quickly spread across Vermont.
BFP: Have the changes been gradual – or have there been significant, sudden increases?
LB: In the 20th century, we kept inventing new noise sources, and the use of those sources has spread into rural areas.
The car and airplane were followed in the late 20th century by ATVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles and a host of lawn equipment, which added to the racket.
BFP: What else is getting louder?
LB: Quarries are fewer but larger and more mechanized. More recently, industrial wind turbines on ridgelines have emerged as an issue.
BFP: Any predictions about worst-case soundscapes in our future?
LB: In the 21st century, noise from the air might increase significantly. With drone and flying car technology, we might turn every driveway into a runway and every neighborhood into a flight path.
If we are not prepared and thinking ahead, it doesn’t take long for a technology to outpace policy.
BFP: Which populations have been most impacted by noise?
LB: In general, as a society we tend to dump our noise on poorer people.
BFP: What are some of the measurable downsides to noise pollution?
LB: The World Health Organization estimates that 2 percent of the heart attacks in Europe are due to noise. The numbers in the United States are probably less, because our country is less densely populated – more people live farther away from noise sources.
That said, a Harvard School of Public Health study around airports found similar and higher rates of cardiac admission to hospitals due to noise.
Fortunately, most people in Vermont don’t live around airports. I am concerned, however, about the people who do, such as those who live in Winooski.
BFP: And that Civil War–era concern – nighttime noise – is that cannon still loose?
LB: Sleep loss has a cascading impact. According to a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, people who lose an hour of sleep have been found to have an 8 percent higher rate of car accidents.
BFP: Any more subtle risks?
LB: And as anyone who has kids knows, people who are tired are more likely to become frustrated, perform tasks less well, and are generally not as much fun to be around.
Noise degrades our performance of complex tasks, whether that is in the workplace or the school. It interferes with communication. It even decreases helping and civil behavior.
Also, people need opportunities for peace and quiet. We need to be able to escape noise. Without that, our well-being suffers.
BFP: What are the benefits – and costs – of reducing noise?
LB: Noise definitely has an economic impact. There is a reason you don’t see adds for a “nice house in a noisy neighborhood.” Noise affects property values.
But a quieter world doesn’t have to cost more. In some cases, such as motorcycle noise, where people take off a perfectly good muffler and pay to have a poor one put on their motorcycle, there is not cost of quiet, there is a cost for noise.
In other cases, such as lawn equipment, there is no relationship between cost and noise. For other products, quieter ones are more expensive. It is very much dependent on the source.
BFP: Are there any municipalities (or businesses, or individuals) within Vermont on the forefront of better noise management?
LB: Mostly in Vermont, I’m seeing people react to noise problems after they exist. That generally ensures an expensive solution or no solution.
Noise problems are much, much cheaper and easier to solve before they are created.
BFP: What ways can we take preventative action?
LB: Regulators in Vermont, from the state on down to local planning and zoning, generally are unwilling to say “no” to development, even if it clearly is not permitted by regulations. This creates all sorts of conflicts and problems that last for generations.
Good, clear noise regulations solve a lot of conflict in our communities. I speak to lots of neighbors who absolutely hate each other, due to noise.
The general civility of Vermonters limits these problems, but communities must set clear expectations and enforce limits when people choose to act uncivilly.
BFP: Are there legislative or technological models we should be adopting?
LB: I’d start with the muffler. There is no reason for motorcycles (and some cars) to be without one in the 21st century. It takes 80 or more cars to be as loud as one un-muffled motorcycle.
These guys – and they are mostly guys – are driving around screaming, “LISTEN TO ME.” We’re all forced to listen to them, but they have nothing more to say than, “Here I am.”
Unfortunately, it seems like everyone but the police are listening. Strengthening and enforcing muffler laws is a good place to start.
BFP: How does noise become a political issue?
LB: Noise pollutes the air, which is not owned by anyone, but held collectively by all. Politics is how we deal with the use of common property.
Noise is also political because noise is often an expression of power – the power to make it, to impose one’s noise on others.
It is important to remember that everyone makes noise. I mow my lawn and you mow yours.
Problems generally occur in two situations: 1. When the noisemaker is particularly insensitive – mowing early on a Sunday or when a neighbor is having a family gathering, for example; or 2. When the noise is particularly unequal – when the noise primarily travels one way.
BFP: Any lively, noise-related political discussions going on out there?
LB: The two headline-grabbing noise issues in Vermont, the noise from F-35 jets (scheduled to be stationed at Burlington International Airport) and the noise from wind turbines on ridgelines, are good examples of noise that is not equal.
No noise the neighbors might make will interfere with the flying of the jets or the turning of the blades.
But the noise of the jets and the thumping of the blades will interfere with anything from sleeping to reading a book to talking to family to watching TV.
When the noise transmission is unequal, you can pretty much expect problems. You have to be very careful in the siting of unequal noise sources.
BFP: Are there any correlations you’ve seen between a willingness to limit noise – and political parties?
LB: I’d say that in general, support for noise control comes from individuals across the political spectrum, but opposition tends to come from the conservative end of the political spectrum.
About 20 percent of the population is noise-sensitive. They thrive in peace and quiet and hear sound louder than others.
These people who most strongly dislike noise span the political spectrum. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between noise sensitivity and ideology.
BFP: How about lawmakers?
LB: There is a difference in how conservatives and liberals tend to control noise. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once had a noise abatement office, but it was closed by President Ronald Reagan.
Similarly, there were more than a dozen state noise programs in the United States, but most of them have been closed or significantly downsized by Republican governors.
The conservative dislike for environmental regulations clearly extends to noise. That said, gated communities typically have the most restrictive noise regulations in the country.
BFP: Because money talks?
LB: Conservatives seem much happier with noise regulations on private property than in communities.
Another factor in the political landscape of noise is that many of the noisemakers tend to be more conservative. Dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, guns, and muffler-less motorcycles, more often than not, are operated by more politically conservative people.
BFP: In your opinion, is Vermont making progress? If not, what are the major roadblocks?
LB: Vermont is making very little progress in protecting the soundscape. There has not been a proactive approach to protecting the soundscape like there has been to protecting Vermont’s landscape.
Most efforts are reactive and often too late.
BFP: Has Vermont missed some significant opportunities?
LB: Many of the noise problems in Vermont were “planned problems,” meaning that they went through a zoning or Act 250 process.
When the government, whether the police or a planning body, does not protect the soundscape, Neighbors usually end up hating each other. Hate is not a foundation for a healthy community.
BFP: Where’s a good place to start to learn more about noise and controlling noise?
LB: I’d check out the online library of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse at www.nonoise.org.
BFP: What are some ways we can actively get involved in managing noise in their lives, and in the lives of their neighbors?
LB: Whether you are aiming for a quieter home, or a quieter community, you need to plan ahead. When an appliance stops working, you probably won’t have the time to find the appliance you want to listen to for the next 20 years.
Check out Consumer Reports Magazine, and know ahead of time the appliances you want – before yours breaks down.
There are quieter refrigerators, dishwashers, washers, dryers, lawnmowers, furnaces, water heaters, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, etc., but you might not have time to research them before your pipes freeze or your food spoils.
BFP: Aside from one’s own ears and comfort levels, do you recommend any tools to measure noise levels?
LB: Our ears are the best and most sensitive means of judging noise. If we used them more, we’d realize that large parts of the Vermont soundscape have more in common with a landfill than the Vermont landscape.
BFP: Do you have a pet peeve for noise?
LB: I think volitional noise is particularly offensive. Purposefully making noise, often at levels such that the walls of our homes provide no protection, is bullying behavior.
BFP: Do you use ear plugs or any other ear protection, or sound-canceling headphones?
LB: I have good hearing. I survived youth with my hearing intact, didn’t work in noisy occupations. I generally participate in quiet recreation.
If you are exposed to loud amplified music, a noisy workplace, shoot guns, or participate in motorized recreation and you are not vigilant about wearing hearing protection, there is a real good chance you’ll suffer hearing loss.
The music you love won’t sound as good; you’ll not hear women’s and children’s voices well. As you get older, life will likely become lonelier because you can’t participate in conversations.
At parties and family gatherings you’ll sit there, bored and unable to participate. You’ll be the guy who falls asleep in the middle of everything – because if you can’t hear others, you’re in the middle of nothing.
BFP: What led you to become an advocate for a quieter world?
LB: I got interested in noise when I lived in downtown Montpelier 20 years ago. Cassella was picking up trash at 3 a.m., and the City was street sweeping at 4 a.m.
Waking people sleeping in their own home is really uncivil. Downtown residents, including myself, would wake to breaking glass at 3 a.m., and a street sweeper as loud as a race car shortly after that. It was totally unnecessary.
Changing that policy was one of the first things I worked on.
BFP: What have you learned since then?
LB: Noise is aural litter; it is audible trash. If we could see our soundscape, if we could see the noise, we would see the equivalent of McDonald’s wrappers scattered everywhere.
BFP: And other unsightly stuff.
LB: I’d never have the job I have now if it hadn’t been for McDonald’s trying to come into downtown Montpelier, years ago.
My wife, a couple friends and I led the effort to keep out of downtown in the mid-1990s. As a result of that work, I met a woman who had $50,000 with which she wanted to start an anti-noise group.
That donation was the start of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.
Good night’s sleep?
Vermont forged its first sound-related ordinance in the 19th century.
The framework of that law remains intact, in Title 13, § 1022, Noise in the Nighttime:
“A person who, between sunset and sunrise, disturbs and breaks the public peace by firing guns, blowing horns or other unnecessary and offensive noise shall be fined not more than $50.
However, this section shall not prevent a person employing workmen, for the purpose of giving notice to his or her employees, from ringing bells or using whistles or gongs of such size and weight, in such manner, and at such hours as the selectmen of the town, the aldermen of the city, or the trustees of the village may prescribe in writing.”
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