The dangers of secondhand smoke have led to health warnings, congressional hearings and bans in public places.
Now, some advocates say it's time to confront another health hazard: secondhand noise.
The soundtrack of our lives often includes the clamor of traffic, car stereos, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, jet skis, car alarms, air conditioners, motorcycles, jackhammers and construction equipment. We live with blenders, dishwashers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and televisions. We even use white noise to help us sleep.
John Miller, of Lower Burrell, goes to the YMCA in Natrona Heights to work out. He finds himself hammered by music cranked way past 11.
"It's just daunting amounts of noise," he says. "There's a spinning class there that rocks the whole building. I'm 53 years old. I'm a rocker. I played in bands. I like volume. It's gone higher than I like. Higher than I can stand."
Noise, often defined as unwanted sound, does more than damage hearing. It has been linked to stress reactions such as high blood pressure, sleeplessness, increased heart rate, labored breathing, cardiovascular constriction and changes in brain chemistry. Several studies have found that children in schools near airports often do worse than children in quieter schools.
"I believe the United States has really fallen behind in really acknowledging that noise is not healthy," says Evelyn Talbott
, professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health
at the University of Pittsburgh. "Noise is a public health problem."
Talbott has studied the effect of occupational noise exposure for more than 15 years. One study compared workers at an automobile plant, within areas where the decibel level was over 90. They were compared to an area where the levels were between 80 and 87. Men who worked in the higher decibel level had twice the risk of hypertension after adjusting for age, body-mass index, family history of hypertension and alcohol intake, all risk factors for high blood pressure.
By comparison, conversation at a distance of three feet is about 60 decibels, while a quiet room is about 40.
Talbott's own voice gets louder as she talks about what she sees as a complacent attitude toward noise.
"It's like radiation," she says. "It isn't visible. You hear it and you're annoyed. People look at you and say, 'What's wrong with you? Tough it out.'
"That's the prevailing attitude," Talbott says. "This is the price of doing business, so to speak."
"Noise is really audible trash or aural litter," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. "It's a waste product that's being thrust onto other people's property. ... Just like you don't have the right to throw your McDonald's wrapper in somebody else's yard, you shouldn't have the right to cast your noise in someone else's yard."
The Environmental Protection Agency once had a mandate to fight noise pollution.
The Office of Noise Abatement and Control, established in 1972, gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to research the potentially damaging effects of noise and determine acceptable levels. The Reagan Administration closed the office in 1982, leaving it to states and local municipalities to pass their own noise laws.
Much of the stress caused by noise often comes from a feeling of powerlessness: that there's no escape from the neighbor's barking dog or the roar of dirt bikes racing through a nearby field for hours on end. And if your sleep is ruined by some jerk's stereo or television, you might be s