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Trying to find the quiet outdoors amid noise pollution

It starts early on a Sunday morning, with a lawn mower or hedge trimmer.

Then come the roaring motorcycles and screaming sirens. A long, angry blast on a car horn. A car with its stereo thumping, and then another, and another.

You’re walking on the waterfront, and instead of the waves, you hear the blaring of a radio. You go to the gym to work on your beach body, and you’re deafened by the beat. The clatter of construction, booming of a rock band warming up, the screech of a car alarm, the wedding receptions with bands so loud you have to shout, the roar of a souped-up truck, the snarl of personal watercraft, the cries of “Marco? Polo!” from the pool, the neighbors’ party that rocks the house …


When did the song become “Summertime, and the living is loud”?

Music therapist Susan Wesley often thinks about that as she covers her ears on the streets of Buffalo. Walking through Allentown recently, she was distressed by a band whose pounding carried for blocks.

It bothered her especially because noise, according to her research, is not just an annoyance. It’s a health issue.

“What is up in the culture?” Wesley said. “Everything’s about eating right, eating green, keeping exercised, moving the limbs, feeding the body. Everyone’s also concerned with glasses, getting your eyes checked. So we’re dealing with all of the senses except the ones that we ignore. We ignore smell, for the most part. And we ignore hearing.”

Smell and hearing, Wesley said, are the two senses an unborn baby gets first. Yet we don’t give them much thought.

As she explains: “We’re desensitized in part because there’s nothing we can do to control them.”

You can choose what to eat. If you don’t want to look at something, you can close your eyes.

When it comes to your ears, though, you are at the world’s mercy. You can defend yourself with earplugs or headphones, but there’s no blocking the vibration of a loud boom car that happens to pull up next to you in traffic.

Oswaldo Mestre, director of citizen services for the City of Buffalo, said that noise is not the top topic of phone calls to the Mayor’s Call and Resolution Center. That honor goes to weather-related issues, like potholes.

Still, a significant proportion of the center’s calls are about noise, and that number goes up as the warmer weather arrives.

“Springtime, that’s when our biggest call volume goes up,” Mestre said. “Spring is when people are out. They’re opening their doors, they’re hearing each other. I don’t want to say that’s when the neighborhood starts to come alive, but that’s when people are outside and things are happening. Our complaints go up in the spring. Noise complaints go up in the summer.”

Anatomy of a boom car

Wesley thinks people should be more concerned about noise than they are. Years ago, by accident, she became aware of the damage it can cause.

“When I was working at a psychiatric hospital in Maine with children, there was a particular boy who had a beautiful voice who was in a group where kids would sing along,” she said. “He would start singing – and then in a matter of a few minutes, with no one looking at him or saying anything to him, he would get up and bolt from the room.”

She said his eyes would grow wild and terrified. “The staff was astounded. Nothing seemed to be a threat. I started wondering what you can’t see.” A light bulb went on. “You can’t see sound.”

Her hunch led her to pinpoint the culprit: the noise of a turbo fan, carrying through the concrete floor. Low-frequency noises affect the vagus, a nerve that starts at the brain stem.

“Vagus” is Latin for “wandering,” and the vagus nerve wanders through the entire body. “It loops through the body and hits every vital organ,” Wesley explained. “It’s the only cranial nerve that loops through the whole body. When that vagus nerve gets stimulated by low frequencies, it sets off a fight-or-flight response unless the rest of the brain can say, ‘That’s OK.’ ”

The problem can lie in the nature of the sound, rather than the decibel level. Wesley said the throbbing basses of loud car stereos are especially toxic.

“When you’ve got that driving boom, in a predictable fashion, it’s trying to take over your heartbeat,” she said. “You’re getting this sense of agitation. Your body has something imposed on it. It’s a surface vibration, something your body can’t shut out, because it’s a vibration. That’s what all sound is, vibration.”

The vibration creates not only physiological stress but, frequently, psychological stress. Too often, we are forced to absorb noises we cannot control.

Though Buffalo has noise ordinances in place, good luck nailing that offensive boom car.

“When you have cars driving around, by the time you get there, they’re gone,” said Mestre.

Even quieter noises can lead to stress. Obscene language, an incessantly yapping dog or a whining radio audible from down the block can make the helpless listener feel victimized. If you are kept awake by noise beyond your control, Wesley points out, that sleeplessness opens the door to more health problems.

Shouting to be heard

It’s easy to see how noise leads to more noise. Society in general, feeling helpless against noise, learns to accept it.

Some people lose their hearing, and so turn a deaf and uncomplaining ear to booming amps at rock concerts or the crashing volumes in exercise class. Low frequency tones, Wesley said, do the most damage. They hurt the cilia, little hairs in the middle ear that conduct the frequency.

“Those cilia are very damaged by low frequencies, the louder and lower the worse,” she said. “Eventually people lose the ability to hear more and attend to normal speaking.” She added that could be one reason the volume in movie theaters is so loud. A lot of moviegoers can’t hear properly.

Meanwhile there always will be individuals who, recognizing that it’s already noisy, feel free to add to the din. One example is the Delaware Park Ring Road. With the Scajaquada Expressway cutting through the park and making it noisy, motorists often feel free to drive around with radios blasting.

As silence becomes more scarce, we stop expecting it. Libraries, once quiet, are now entertainment centers, with sound systems and cellphone chatter. Restaurants blast music, forcing patrons to raise their voices.

Even in the city parks, there is a mysterious noise, a rumbling of the earth. It’s Frederick Law Olmsted, turning in his grave. Olmsted would despair over the blaring music and booming stereos. He intended his parks for the quiet appreciation of nature.

Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, pointed out that although the parks were here before the automobile was, Olmsted foresaw the noise of modern cities.

“The whole point of the parks is to give people relief from the urban setting,” he said. “Olmsted saw cities growing noisier, busier, denser, more populated. He could see where city life was going, and he wanted to convince people that these places of rural, pastoral beauty were essential to human health.”

That philosophy was reflected in the gardens that Olmsted was asked to design for the Buffalo State Asylum For the Insane, located in what we now call the Richardson Complex. As problematic as the place would prove decades down the line, the hospital founders’ intentions were good. They hoped that the beauty and quiet would prove healing. Modern science shows they were right.

Turn it down

Science, though, doesn’t seem to do us much good when we are awash in a world of noise. What can we do, in the middle of a jangling summer, to turn down the volume?

Awareness is the first step, Wesley suggested. Speak up, even if you have to shout to be heard.

She did that once, at a health club she belonged to with loud music. “I took the manager aside and said, ‘I’d like to tell you what I know about sound.’ I gave him a quick nutshell explanation, that it was antithetical to what he was trying to create, health. That it was doing damage.” The club turned down the tunes, she said.

Don’t be shy about calling the city about a chronic noise situation. “We welcome calls,” said Mestre, at City Hall. “We want people to enjoy good quality of life.”

Herrera-Mishler, for his part, hopes to restore greater quiet to Delaware Park by eliminating the Scajaquada Expressway.

“It’s so enervating, just feet away from the Ring Road,” he said. “There’s noise pollution, air pollution and visual pollution. What it did was diminish the value of the peaceful retreat that Olmsted designed for the community.

“Combating noise pollution is so important because we are living in a digitized age. To go out for a walk and enjoy quiet and exercise and conversation is so restorative, so critical to staying healthy.”