Saying No To Noise

Turning Down The Volume In Our Lives

By Nora Brunner

Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, November/December 2008.

Americans successfully got on the bandwagon decades ago to reduce various kinds of pollution in their environment. But one form of pollution may not be receiving the attention it deserves. The culprit is noise and managing our exposure can benefit our health.

We encounter noise everywhere: honking horns, sirens, all manner of ringing and singing electronic devices, and deafening restaurants, movie theaters, and malls. Research shows our ears don’t get used to this excess. The damage to hearing can be serious, but there are other health hazards as well. Perhaps our ancestors knew something we are just now beginning to catch on to: Noise is derived from the Latin word nausea.

It’s In The Numbers

How much is too much? A normal conversation is about 60 decibels. Freeway traffic is 70 decibels. Vacuum cleaners weigh in at 60–85 decibels; subways at 90–115 decibels. A good rule of thumb is that anything above 80 decibels, approximately the volume of a lawnmower at close range, can lead to hearing loss when exposure is repeated or sustained.

Studies have linked exposure to unacceptable levels of noise to irritability, high blood pressure, stomach ills, the release of stress hormones, and cardiovascular disease. Even noise that takes place while you sleep exacts a toll—the brain interprets sound as a threat even during slumber. It needn’t wake you up to create stress.

Restaurants are often cited as perpetuating toxic noise—the idea in some eateries seems to be that the din creates an atmosphere of excitement and liveliness. But too much noise is second only to poor service when it comes to complaints from restaurant-goers.

Some of the solutions restauranteurs are pursuing may give us ideas for home or work. They note softer and porous substances absorb more sound and often suggest carpet instead of hard floor surfaces, fabric banners hung from ceilings, and walls and ceilings lined with slats of wood, fabric, or composite materials. Tablecloths and water elements also help. They recommend spreading tables at least eight feet apart, though cutting down on the productivity of floor space can be an economic problem for some businesses.

Three Simple Rules

Oregon Health and Science University professor Dr. William Martin offers three suggestions that may seem obvious but are easy to forget in the throes of busy lives. He urges “turning it down, moving away, and wearing hearing protection.” This can mean dialing down the volume, thoughtfully choosing the establishments we frequent, and at times, wearing earplugs for better sleep.

Seeking quiet may be as much a philosophy as it is a health practice. If excess noise is hard on health, it only makes sense seeking quiet is a balm to our hearing, minds, and nerves. It’s free and relatively simple to reacquaint ourselves with the pleasures of silence. Finding time in nature, meditation, a quiet room, or peaceful vacation spot can help heal and restore. It’s okay to tune out.