A Joyful Noise?

Noise girl covers ears loud
It is almost impossible to find natural quiet, especially in North America.

For 18 years, Peter Acker has been traveling the world to collect the sounds of nature with the help of Max, a specially constructed microphone.

"It's the closest thing to human hearing that technology has come up with," says Acker.

Acker and Max seek out little pockets of quiet, such as the glen in Vermont, which is miles from the nearest town.

"In the years I've come here to record, I've been able to get segments of 10 or 15 minutes of unbroken silence," says Acker. "But coming out here today, this is my first time back to this spot in about four and a half years."

Recently, Acker found it hard to find 15 minutes of clear silence. The closer you get to "civilization," the louder it gets.

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver says New Year's Eve was once the rare night of the year when folks knew they had to put up with their peace being disturbed, but not anymore.

These days, our ears are under constant assault. Surveys show that transportation noise, from airplanes to traffic, bothers us most of all. But let's face it, even our neighbors can make life miserable for us.

Construction is just one of Bette Dewing's noise problems. Her New York apartment is so noisy that she has developed her own survival kit — earphones and a specially insulated front door.

A blast from a vacuum cleaner invades her home as she opened the door. Dewing says, "I'm so used to it."

If we looked at the physiological effects of noise, we'd have to recognize that noise is a stressor.

Psychologist Arline Bronzaft ought to know. As a volunteer noise consultant for New York City, she constantly fields complaints from citizens like Teresa Levy.

Levy has been fighting with her noisy upstairs neighbors for more than two years.

"It has affected my health," says Levy. "I've gone to the doctor, complaining about headaches, jitteriness, nervousness, sleepless nights."

Bronzaft says preliminary studies do indeed show that living with constant noise may lead to physical problems like hypertension as well as psychological stress. She has conducted a study of the effects of train clatter on children's reading scores. Their school was right 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," says Bronzaft. "That is a significant difference."

Here are some estimated decibel levels:

  • Sitting in a quiet living room can reach to about 20 decibels
  • Standing on a busy street can be 70 decibels, until you throw in heavy truck traffic, which can reach 90 deceibels.
  • A jack hammer registers about 130 decibels up-close.
  • A loud rock concert could reach 120 decibels with the threshold of pain at 140.

You probably would be surprised to learn that the nation's major anti-noise interest group, the Noise Pollution Clearing House, is located not in some gritty city, but in the town of Montpelier, Vt., with a population of 8,000.

Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House, says 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," says Blomberg. "That's what I want to create for noise."

What about cell phones?

"I think we should think of the cell phone as the cigarette and treat it the same way. In public places where you wouldn't smoke," he says. "You also don't use a cell phone."

But, Blomberg and his tiny team are concentrating on louder noise — trying to get fire and police departments to use directional sirens to focus the noise in the direction the vehicle is traveling.

They say they want a siren that does the job, but is less intrusive.

"It would be safer, too," says Blomberg. "Because, then if you heard the siren, you knew that you were involved. Right now, you hear a siren, it can be anywhere. You have no idea where it is."

The idea has yet to take off — even in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has recently launched "Operation Silent Night." The project is an effort to hush up the city that never sleeps.

Mayor Bloomberg says noise complaints comprise approximately 83 percent of the calls received by the city's hotline last year. That means that police officers have been handing out tickets to cabbies who lean on their horn and drivers who turn their cars into boom boxes.

Not everyone thinks it's a problem, including humor writer Jill Rachel Jacobs.

"I think there should be more boom boxes actually, says Jacobs. "There aren't enough. In order to counteract the boom box, you need to have your own box."

It's not that noise isn't serious business. Disputes have broken out over leaf blowers in Los Angeles, snowmobiles in national parks, the Big Dig in Boston, and music in the New Orleans French Quarter. Even CBS has come under fire, accused of making too much noise while broadcasting from a public plaza in Manhattan.

But given New Yorkers' in-your-face reputations, Jacobs wonders whether it's realistic to even try for a quieter city.

Still, anti-noise activists dream of a more civil society and a time when we will demand that the machines that are supposed to make our lives better don't end up drowning us out.

"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," says Blomberg.

For now, it's up to us as individuals because when you get right down to it, one man's symphony is another man's noise. Take the example of virtuoso Emmanuel Ax. His neighbors didn't like hearing him practice.

"Considering the amount of bus traffic, truck traffic, sirens … you sort of think this can't be any worse than the garbage truck outside," says Ax. "But, maybe it drives people more crazy."

Ever the gentleman, Ax graciously decided to move to a friendlier building. He says his new neighbors even call in requests.