When we think about pollution we usually point to foul air, unsafe water, or toxic waste, says Robert Hume.
But as we enter 2019, what about the damage noise is doing to our health? Aren’t we being bombarded by more noise than ever before?
From the street outside the busy coffee shop where I am sitting comes the pounding of a pneumatic drill – not more roadworks! Now it’s the roar of a dustcart. Business is getting back to “normal”.
An ambulance picks its way down the high street, siren wailing ever louder: I’m told its 120 decibels. Inside: the cheery background hum of human voices and laughter is broken by mobile phones going off – and people shouting into them, the clatter of saucers, and baristas bashing out coffee grounds, while the frappé machine sounds like it’s cutting up granite chippings. Sooner or later – it’s that not knowing when that makes it so unsettling – I bet they’re going to empty the bottle bank! Even recycling comes at a cost to our ears.
The European Noise Directive requires all EU members to construct “noise maps” and develop action plans to reduce noise levels.
Cork City Council’s Noise Action Plan identifies places that have more than six million vehicles passing per year. Noise levels are recorded and colour coded on maps.
Apart from roads, and their associated sounds – the slamming of car doors, the booming bass of some car sound systems, car horns and alarms ¬– we are surrounded by other peoples’ conversations in our open-plan offices, the incessant babble of televisions, leaf blowers, chain saws, deafening hand dryers in public toilets – do they really save energy? – and cinema film tracks played louder than ever before.
It’s a loud world out there all right, what David Hendy (Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, 2013) calls “an amplified age”, a time many of us compare unfavourably to when there were only natural sounds: babbling brooks, roaring rivers, slapping waves, “the holly whistling, the ash hissing, the beech tree rustling as its boughs rise and fall” (Thomas Hardy Under the Greenwood Tree).
Although we tend to think of noise – in the sense of “unwanted sound” – as a modern problem, noise didn’t go unnoticed by our forebears. The past was far from silent: it’s just that the noises were different.
People in Sybaris, Ancient Greece, grumbled about noisy potters, tinsmiths, and tradesmen – turning, hammering, and shouting out their wares.
Juvenal wrote that in Rome, “many an invalid dies of insomnia”, for a stream of bellowing animals and hawkers filled the narrow streets at night.
Seneca, who lived above a Roman bathhouse and gym, complained about singing in the bath, the shouts of sausage peddlers, the groans of men heaving lead weights, and – not least – the cries of those having their armpits plucked!
Across medieval Europe, church bells summoned worshipers to pray at regular intervals – day and night. In big cities, such as London and Paris, hundreds of bells would be pealing every few hours – in celebration, to remember the departed, to clear people off the streets at night.
The clattering of iron-rimmed wheels on cobbles, sheep bleating, horses neighing, hammers striking metal, carpenters sawing, stonecutters chiselling and a chorus of men and women selling mutton pies from dawn until dusk, all made for a restless time. If that wasn’t enough to set you on edge, there were doors being dragged shut, and metal hinges squeaking on windows.
Nor could you completely escape noise in the countryside where the grinding of the millstone produced a rumble that could be heard for miles around.
The quietest life for a medieval person was perhaps the monastic one, where the silence was only broken by the chanting of songs, scratching of quills, clicking of rosaries and maybe the buzzing of bees.
Mardi Gras festivities were so noisy in southern France that in 1580 officials in the city of Romans, in the province of Dauphine, lost their nerve. A draper who over-indulged was killed and his friends beaten up.
A London by-law of 1595 forbade any “suddaine out-cry... in the still of the Night… any affray”, singing, revelling, and beating one’s wife or servant.
When threshing machines began to replace the sickle and scythe during the early 19th century, labourers found it impossible to sing or chatter above the hum, observed Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
In Birmingham, geologist Hugh Miller (1845) described an “unceasing clank of engines”, the hissing of water, and the roaring of steam. The result for factory workers was “boilermakers’ ear”, where tiny hair cells in the cochlea are damaged, making it difficult to hear high frequencies and understand speech.
Romantics, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), found the clatter and “long shriek” of a distant train whistle an affront to the natural sounds of birds and leaves. It brought “the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.” Leo Marx (The Machine in the Garden) described the new noise as: “a mechanised assault upon the pastoral world”.
Apart from deafness, noise has been linked to other health problems, including nausea, headaches, dizziness, stress, high blood pressure and heart disease. Donald Laird (1927) studied the effects of workplace noise on typists’ performance. He reported tensed muscles, anxiety, and an increased number of errors.
Some 20 recent studies have shown the detrimental effect that aircraft and road traffic noise in London have on children’s reading abilities and long- term memory.
With more people, more machines, and more traffic, the world has become a noisier place, especially in towns and cities where most of us now live. Much of this noise we have simply come to accept.
You cannot get away from noise today. Searching for silence, says Hendy, “is as elusive as hunting around for slow food”.