The not-silent killer: noise pollution

Ransom Riggs

It was almost like living near the ocean. Inside the apartment, the sound washed over you in an undulating, neverending wave, punctuated by the occasional honking cry of the Skylark or Mustang. At rush hour came the frequent squeal of brakes, and at least once a day, the dull thudding whine of a metal-on-metal meeting. Yes, I'll never forget our first apartment in Hollywood, the double-paned "soundproof" windows of which were only ten feet from the 101 Freeway overpass, where you couldn't see the traffic but you could never stop hearing it, even while you slept.

The other bonus was the view: there was a wide embankment built up against the freeway just outside our never-used "porch," where the residentially-challenged would congregate to catch 40 winks, engage in battle with bottles and sticks (I believe the internet hath dubbed them "bumfights"), and even pursue more amorous objectives 'neath double-wide sleeping bags. As it turned out, it was easy enough to not look out the window -- but the one thing you can't shut off is your ears. It seemed to affect me more profoundly than my wife, who at one point claimed she "hadn't heard the freeway for months" (liar!) and even now prefers to have the television on in the background while reading or writing, which continues to baffle me.

I had to face up to the fact that perhaps I was just more sensitive to sound than she, even though by any objective standard, my hearing is no better. Was there something wrong with me? Why weren't my double-paned windows enough? Well, according to a groundbreaking new study detailed in New Scientist and The Daily Telegraph (I wonder if they still use a telegraph there), noise pollution is a problem for everyone, and not only does it have a "huge impact on health," it may even be responsible for three in every hundred deaths traditionally blamed on heart attack and stroke. Here's why:

Noise is linked with heart attack and stroke because it creates chronic stress that keeps our bodies in a state of constant alert. Research published last year by Germany's Federal Environmental Agency in Berlin shows that even when you are asleep, your ears, brain and body continue to react to sounds, raising levels of stress hormones. However, if these stress hormones are in constant circulation, they can cause long-term physiological changes that could be life-threatening. The end result can be anything from heart failure and strokes to high blood pressure and immune problems.

They go on to estimate that since nearly 7 million people die from heart disease in Europe every year, that equals about 210,000 deaths attributable to noise pollution every year. Furthermore, even if it doesn't kill you, it can have other negative impacts: when schools are built in especially noisy areas, information retention and test scores go down. Chronic exposure to noise can cause tinnitus. And people who haven't slept as well during the night are more likely to have accidents during the day (thereby creating the sort of freeway noises that give other people noise fatigue -- a vicious cycle!)

Since that first infamous apartment in fabulous Hollywood, we've intentionally sought out the quietest parts of LA, and lived in blissful peace for lo these several years. But I'll never forget what it was like to live with constant noise -- and that millions of people (and millions more each year, as our cities grow) still live with it every day. What does your neighborhood sound like?