Trevor Hancock: Let’s make some noise about all that noise

This summer was unusual for us — we could actually sit out in our garden quite often without being driven indoors by power saws, drills, hammering, motor mowers or, worst of all, leaf-blowers.

But noise is a problem everywhere these days — in our parks, in cafés, pubs and restaurants, in our arenas and movie theatres, on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. I am sure my experiences are shared by many of you.

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Recently, I was on one of my favourite dog walks on the back trails of Thetis Lake Park when my quiet enjoyment of nature — which we know is good for health — was ruined, yet again, by the roar of engines and the squeal of tires and brakes. Yep, the Western Speedway. I really do not understand why this noisy and polluting activity is allowed to disrupt the local neighbourhood and the park.

Another pet peeve is the volume of noise in our eating places. If I actually want to talk with the people I am sitting with, I usually have to ask for the noise to be turned down. I consider it rude and discourteous of the owners and managers that they value my conversation so little that they are content to drown it out.

Why? What is the point of this level of noise? How can we maintain social contacts if we can’t hear each other talk?

Now you may think that this is just me being a grumpy old guy, but noise is more than a nuisance, it’s a health problem. By noise, I mean what the dictionary says: “A sound … that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.” Or more succinctly, as the World Health Organization puts it: “Noise is unwanted sound.”

That unwanted sound can be quite localized, as in eating establishments or places of recreation and entertainment, and we have the option of moving away. But then, in effect, people who seek peace and quiet, or at least a reasonable level of noise, are excluded from these public places. This is particularly problematic for those who are especially sensitive to noise — as some are — or are hard of hearing, something we all tend to experience as we age.

In addition to localized noise, there is also the more generalized “environmental noise,” which the WHO’s European Region dubs “noise pollution.” In a 2011 report, WHO noted that noise pollution “is among the most frequent sources of complaint regarding environmental issues in Europe, especially in densely populated urban areas and residential areas near highways, railways and airports.”

The WHO report identified a number of health effects of noise pollution, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in children, sleep disturbance, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and annoyance. Of these, the most severe effects are high blood pressure and heart disease, but the most widespread health impacts arise from sleep disturbance and annoyance.

Writing in the Southern Medical Journal in 2007, Lisa Goines and Dr. Louis Hagler make an interesting point: “In a way that is analogous to second-hand smoke, second-hand noise is an unwanted airborne pollutant produced by others; it is imposed on us without our consent, often against our wills, and at times, places and volumes over which we have no control.”

So just as the non-smokers’ rights movement was crucial in the fight against tobacco, maybe it is time for a “quiet enjoyment rights” movement to take on the issue of unwanted sound in public places.

In fact, right in Vancouver we have the Right to Quiet Society, which was established in 1982. The society seeks to “foster recognition of the right to quiet as a basic human right” and wants to see “a world where quiet is a normal part of life and where it is possible to listen to the sounds of nature without the constant intrusion of machine noise and artificial stimuli.”

There is even an International Noise Awareness Day, established by the U.S.-based Center for Hearing and Communication in 1996, with the wonderful slogan: “You have to make some noise to end it.” The next observance is April 27, 2016.

Maybe it’s time we made some noise about noise.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of

Victoria’s school of public health and social policy. 

thancock@uvic.ca

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