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The growing movement against noise pollution

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

Noise - it's a part of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS BEEPING)

HUANG: The sounds you hear most may depend on where you live - a rural community versus urban, city or suburbs - but a completely quiet home in America is hard to come by. And according to the experts, no matter where you live, it's getting louder.

JAMIE BANKS: We have more transportation around us. This might be road traffic, rail traffic, air traffic. There's many other sources of noise coming from outdoor power equipment, industry, entertainment venues and so forth.

HUANG: Jamie Banks is founder and president of the nonprofit Quiet Communities, and groups like hers are part of a growing movement that sees chronic noise exposure as not just a nuisance but a health risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The medical community is beginning to notice the magnitude and long-term effects that noise has at the cellular level.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: New research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology finds such noise pollution may have an effect on your heart health.

HUANG: New York City Council Member Gale Brewer is trying to make one of America's noisiest cities a little quieter.

GALE BREWER: New York City is exciting and noise comes with it. For me, the issue is the noise has to stay within the Department of Environmental Protection guidelines because they exist, and that's the law.

HUANG: She introduced legislation that would require emergency vehicles to use low-frequency sirens. This comes as noise complaints have skyrocketed since the pandemic.

BREWER: In the last year, we've had, you know, 300 complaints about noise, including some of the ones that you just mentioned - sirens, leaf blowers, construction noise is another one. And the city has had 45,000 complaints to 311.

HUANG: Noise is something many of us have learned to live with. We just tune it out. But noise researcher Erica Walker says that that complacency can be a problem, especially in places with chronic noise pollution, because it's affecting our health. I've spent years learning how to block out the din of daily life, and now I wanted to learn how to unblock it to understand just how much noise we live with. So I went on a sound tour with Walker. It's the middle of the day in the middle of the summer.

ERICA WALKER: We're in Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence, R.I.

HUANG: We're in the middle of the city of Providence, where Walker is a noise researcher at Brown University.

WALKER: You got people, transportation, music. This is just, like, quintessential urban environment.

HUANG: She studies how noise pollution affects people's health. Our first stop is the bus depot, where we meet a woman named Keisha (ph) who asked us to only use her first name because we were discussing what is a contentious issue in the community - which is sound. She doesn't mind the way the city sounds.

KEISHA: Trees, wind, buses, people, birds, public (laughter) - I can't complain. I'm just trying to get to work.

HUANG: Here, the sounds are temporary, but it's the noise at home that's the problem.

KEISHA: Businesses with loud music - it's ridiculous - all hours of the night. It's crazy. Call the police - nothing gets done. I can't sleep with a speaker coming out of a SUV till 7:00 in the morning.

HUANG: Noise pollution is unwanted sound, and it can affect the body in a few different ways. For those who live or work in very loud places, it can damage their hearing. But Walker says it can still affect their health.

WALKER: It's that - yeah, it's that response of calling 311 over and over and over again. It's the - I can't sleep at night. It's the - I feel like I'm going to have to sell my house and move out. It is the - I had to go to the emergency room because I had a panic attack. It's - I can't sleep. I can't hear my children. It's all of those things.

HUANG: Chronic noise exposure in places where you live can put your body in constant fight-or-flight mode. It can lead to hypertension, heart problems and a decline in mental health. Walker came to this work because of her own experience. Years ago, she was living in an apartment in Boston.

WALKER: A family moves in above me with two really small kids. And, of course, those two very small kids ran across their floor, which was my ceiling, for, like, 24 hours a day.

HUANG: While it sounded like joy to their parents, it was a constant stressor in her life. She documented the noise, started recording her stress levels and even collected her saliva to test for stress hormones.

WALKER: When I go hard, I go hard.

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: Her goal was to get the family evicted until a trusted friend channeled her frustrations into the fields of public health, helping communities deal with noise. Next, we head to a residential neighborhood.

WALKER: So we're in a really posh neighborhood off of Blackstone Boulevard in Providence, R.I.

HUANG: We're standing in the shade of a leafy tree next to a beautiful lawn. You can hear the low hum of air conditioning, and you can hear the birds.

WALKER: I just feel like everything just slowed down considerably. You know, you hear an occasional dog barking. Cars drive by slower. You feel like you can just hear yourself think.

HUANG: Walker says that this is the sound of privilege and that this quiet should be something everyone gets in their lives. But we are standing in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes. It's where a lot of professors live, though not Walker.

Erica, should we head to our last stop?

WALKER: Yeah, absolutely. I'm ready.

HUANG: Where are we headed?

WALKER: We're headed to Pawtucket, R.I., which is where I live.

HUANG: The impacts of noise pollution can't be fully captured in decibels. That's what Walker's research shows. A few years ago, she did a study on people living near Fenway Park, which is an open-air baseball stadium in Boston. On game days, there's music. There's announcers. There's military aircraft flyovers.

WALKER: So yeah, they can be extremely loud, but it was something that the community agreed to, right?

HUANG: But when the stadium was used as a concert venue, the neighbors got upset, even though the volume of the sound was about the same.

WALKER: People were like, we didn't sign up for this. The emotional response to the concerts was just outrageous.

HUANG: Walker found that the source of the noise and whether people felt like they had agreed to it matters a lot.

WALKER: I'm more concerned about the emotional responses because I feel like that is what's driving the health impacts.

HUANG: We get to Pawtucket, just north of Providence. It was an early hub for the textile industry, and it still has a lot of manufacturing.

WALKER: I just feel like everything just slowed down considerably. You know, you hear an occasional dog barking. Cars drive by slower. You feel like you can just hear yourself think.

HUANG: We stand on a narrow sidewalk overlooking six lanes of high-speed traffic on Interstate 95.

WALKER: On one side, there's, like, houses. There's a street. There's a little sidewalk, and there's the interstate.

HUANG: It's the view from Walker's home.

WALKER: The traffic is pretty much 24 hours a day.

HUANG: Walker owns a unit in a converted textile mill, and as a noise researcher, she's got some tricks to mask the sounds.

WALKER: At night, I do more brown noise. It sort of offsets the sound from the heavy trucks. But during the day, like, a soundtrack that sounds like waterfalls, that really helps.

HUANG: But it's not just the noise. The things that cause the noise cause other problems, too.

WALKER: I run around here, right? This is my neighborhood. I run. And sometimes, after I get finished running, I definitely can taste, like, a little soot in my mouth. So I know that there are air quality issues.

HUANG: Walker calls noise pollution a canary in a coal mine for air pollution, water pollution, visual pollution. Basically, if it's noisy, that means that there are other contaminants.

WALKER: You know, I know people would ask, well, why would somebody want to live next to Interstate 95? And it's like, for a lot of people, they have no choice. And this was literally the only place I could afford.

HUANG: She says our cities and neighborhoods can be better designed for reducing the stress of noise pollution. One of her favorite quiet places is a park in Boston in the middle of a hospital district with sirens going off and helicopters overhead.

WALKER: But, like, you walk up a little hill. You get to the top of this park, and it is, like, one of the most quiet and serene places I've ever been in.

HUANG: She says that nothing beats the feeling of simply being at peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUANG: Jamie Banks wants more communities to find that peace. She's the founder and president of Quiet Communities. It's a nonprofit that works to reduce the harms of noise pollution. We called her to talk about how far the U.S. has to go in addressing those harms. We started out talking about the health risks that noise pollution poses.

BANKS: When people think of noise, they automatically think about their ears. And when noise is loud enough, it can certainly damage the ears, and chronic noise can also damage the ears. But there's many other non-hearing health effects of noise. So what happens is that each noise event can set off an involuntary stress response in the body. And what happens is that noise can activate what's known as the autonomic nervous system. That's the nervous system that controls involuntary things like our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and so forth. So when the autonomic nervous system gets activated, stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine are released. And this increases things like blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, these kinds of risk factors. Now, when people are hearing chronic noise, this puts them into a chronic stress state. This can cause, over time, things like heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, metabolic disturbances and even increase premature mortality from these types of conditions.

HUANG: I wanted to ask you about the distribution of noise pollution. So there was a 2017 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and what it found was that noise pollution is worse in segregated cities and neighborhoods with predominantly Black and brown residents. And it's been a few years since that study. So can we say whether pollution - noise pollution has gotten better or worse in these places?

BANKS: That's a good question. There is nothing to suggest that it's gotten better. A lot of the noise pollution that are being experienced by those communities are tied to historic placement of those communities in areas that might be closer to industry, that might be closer to airports and so forth - things that are sources of loud and chronic noise. Those kinds of things are still being perpetuated today in policy decisions that tend to protect wealthier communities from those sorts of exposures and not protect poor communities as well.

HUANG: What are some of the measures that have been used to protect communities from noise? And what can city or federal officials do to address these disparities when it comes to that?

BANKS: Pien, the first thing that's really needed is a greater awareness about noise and its adverse effects. There's very little awareness, and this stems from the fact that the United States today does not have an effective noise control program. In the 1970s, there was a program, and that was doing things like educating people, providing funding for research and so forth, and really making people more aware of the dangers of noise.

HUANG: You know, as we're talking, I'm wondering if there are communities or cities that you have found that have done the best in addressing noise pollution. And I'm wondering how they did it.

BANKS: Unfortunately, a lot of the work has been done over in Europe. And so anecdotally, we know that people that we correspond with have - that have gone over there say, wow, it is much quieter over there. There's a calmer environment, a quieter environment in general. There's even some countries that have, you know, no-noise days, like on Sundays.

HUANG: I mean, what do you think is the difference between, you know, the policies that they have and are able to implement in some of these places in Europe versus what you're able to accomplish here?

BANKS: In the early 2000s, the European Union created a noise directive that gave general guidance for how communities could start to pay attention to noise and mitigate noise. You know, just like we have states in the United States, the European Union has its individual states or countries. Each of those countries are obliged to submit a strategic plan on how they're going to reduce noise. And what they do is identify the most common exposures - transportation is a big one - air, rail and road transportation - and then identify ways to mitigate it.

HUANG: I'm wondering what the ultimate goal for a group like yours is. You know, do you envision cities, you know, like, parts of the country without noise? Like, what is the goal for you?

BANKS: We - our goal is to encourage communities to be aware of noise and to promote quiet as a valuable natural resource. So quiet is important for learning. It's important for health and well-being. It's important for our environment. And of course, we're going to have sources of noise, but what we want to do is prevent the most excessive sources of noise from harming people and the environment.

HUANG: Jamie Banks is the founder and president of Quiet Communities. Thanks so much for joining us.

BANKS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
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