[NPC Clearinghouse]

"Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves."

Reprinted with the permission of the authors, Richard & Joyce Wolkomir © 2001. This article originally appeared in the March, 2001, issue of Smithsonian magazine.


To dissect the din that
daily assaults our ears,
researchers from the Noise
Pollution Clearinghouse
are taking to the streets

SECRET LABORATORY OF DR. DECIBEL," READS THE HAND-LETTERED SIGN taped to Les Blomberg's office door at the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, in Montpelier, Vermont. It was inspired by a Boston friend's telephone call, suggesting the organization create its own comic book superhero. College and high school interns put up the sign. Blomberg, the nonprofit organization's director, was inside his office at the time, oblivious to the tittering outside because he was fine-tuning sound levels on a CD recording he had made--ultra-large dump trucks, construction-site air compressors, jackhammers, that sort of thing. Blomberg's CDs go to noise-beset citizens so they can show officials their precise daily dose of acoustical irritant.

Combating noise is not the usual cartoon-hero derring-do. But in our society noise often is a protected monster. Regulations may be weak. Or noisemakers argue quieting down would be too costly. Sufferers desperately searching the Internet stumble upon the clearinghouse's site, www.nonoise.org. They call or write or e-mail- "I am writing to you at 2:30 A.M. because I was awakened by leafblowers and I am so angry. . . " "I am dealing with a large lumber company which installed a new drying kiln a few months ago, and operates it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I live in a very rural area. . . " "Recently the level of airplane traffic over our home has increased to an intolerable level. I have become depressed. . . " "Now, the interstate has a constant roar that comes toward the school. We can't teach outside. The children seem to have trouble with attention. They also seem to be agitated all the time. . . " "Over the past four months our home has been assaulted by the throbbing bass of our downstairs neighbor's stereo. Asking, pleading, and mediation have not worked. . ."

The clearinghouse responds with data and noise-fighting information, such as how to approach officials, or how to organize a neighborhood. To the beleaguered, it seems as if a buff dude in blue tights flew in, red cape billowing. A typical reaction: 'Just to know that someone has taken the time to do research such as this allows me to feel not so alone." So think of Les Blomberg as the brainy, physics-savvy, but vincible, protector of the noise oppressed. Think of him as that limited-budget battler of rogue sound waves, Dr. Decibel!

Right now our superhero is standing at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, in Manhattan, aiming what looks like a TV remote control toward the Chrysler Building, more or less. It is smoggy and humid this afternoon, and wilted New Yorkers hurry by oblivious to Blomberg, although the sound meter he holds looks like, maybe, a detonator-hey, this is New York. And Blomberg, who is 39, his remaining dark-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a pine-green shirt, khaki trousers and hiking boots, looks unthreatening. In fact, his trimmed beard and mustache frame an engaging grin that expresses the good-natured exuberance normally associated with, say, a Labrador retriever. He adjusts a knob as a corrections department bus whooshes by, then peers appraisingly at a dial.

"OK, that was 78 decibels," he announces. Noise, most people find, becomes really annoying, he says, at about 55 to 65 decibels. Every 10-decibel increase represents a doubling of the loudness. So this Manhattan comer's loudness is four times the annoying level, a real pain in the tympanum.

Blomberg is counting decibels today in the city that is arguably our national noise-pollution capital. This corner's 78 decibels, for instance, makes it louder than most alarm clocks. But now a moving van's driver hits the brakes. Blomberg checks his meter: "That's over 90 decibels." It is like putting your ear next to an exceptionally loud vacuum cleaner. To be heard above the corner's engine whine and hissing air brakes and bicycle-tire hum and siren whoops, Blomberg finds he is compelled to raise his voice.

"We advise people every day, but usually from afar, so it's incredibly valuable to visit these people and experience their problems," he yells, somehow maintaining his benevolent grin. "Let's get on the subway downtown-I have to check on a new kind of noise pollution that we are calling Internet Buzz."

As the 7th Avenue Express rattles southward through its tunnel, Blomberg, hanging onto a metal strap, switches on his sound meter with his free hand. "It's 80 decibels, just riding along in here," he says. A passing train registers 85 decibels: sustained exposure at that level, he says, can induce hearing loss.

Blomberg can cite lots of unsettling noise data. According to the U.S. census, for instance, Americans' number one neighborhood complaint-above crime, traffic and poor public services-is noise. Every day more than 138 million Americans experience noise levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates as annoying and disruptive. Among city dwelling Americans, 87 percent are exposed to noise so loud it has the potential to degrade hearing capacity over time. But you will not necessarily find peace in the suburbs or countryside either, not with the onslaught of leaf blowers, snow blowers, lawn mowers, chain saws, snowmobiles, powerboats and all-terrain vehicles. Because of airplane and helicopter overflights, the natural quiet is now preserved in only 7 percent of Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park and nowhere in Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.

Meanwhile, researchers have demonstrated that noise can raise your blood pressure and change your blood chemistry. For instance, adrenaline levels can rise, indicating the imposition of stress. Noise is also the leading cause of hearing loss: in the United States, exposure to excessive noise has made some 10 million of us at least a little deaf.

"Noise is unwanted sound," Blomberg points out. "And 'noise' comes nom the Latin word for 'nausea.'"

Most sources of annoying noise are increasing. Blomberg cites recent U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. For instance, according to certain calculations, in 1997 personal automobile traffic was 360 percent of 1960 levels, and large truck traffic was 430 percent. Airliner travel in 1998 was 600 percent of 1960 levels, and air cargo was up a whopping 2,460 percent. Meanwhile, Blomberg says, we have new noise sources: "In 1960 there were no boom boxes, no boom cars, no leaf blowers, no jet skis, no car alarms and hardly any snowmobiles."

Vanished noise sources? "I can only think of the doorman's whistle," says Blomberg. America's revulsion with its own increasing racket, he says, led to his organization's founding in 1996, funded by such contributors as the Rockefeller Family Fund.

Blomberg exits the subway in lower Manhattan in his guise as Dr. Decibel, armed with a high-tech sound meter. "But I have to be Miss Manners too," he maintains. That is because he sees two underlying noise-pollution issues: "Sovereignty-who owns the air? And civility-how do we treat our neighbors?"

Internet Buzz straddles both issues. Blomberg strides along Hudson Street to a salmon-colored building. Last night he camped in an apartment facing this building to measure how much of its noise assaults neighbors. He also plotted strategy with neighborhood residents and their attorney, because this building emits a constant buzz.

"See, on the first and fourth floors, every window has been replaced by vents, all making noise," Blomberg says, aiming his sound meter. Inside the building, telecommunications multinationals and dot.coms have installed computers that control their operations. Each computer room requires a big cooling unit, which is blowing its exhaust-and its buzz-out the window. "It's 70 decibels here on the sidewalk, and that's how loud it is outside the apartments across the street, all day, all night," observes Blomberg. A normal home reading is about 25 decibels.

City ordinances are unclear. Do proscribed noise levels apply to individual cooling units? Or do they apply to the building's collective noise? Also, the banned decibel levels vary according to the sound's frequency. "People say, give me one number and tell me if it's a violation or not, but regulations often have variable numbers and different scales, and the complexity hinders enforcement," Blomberg notes. "Yet, if you had just one decibel level, you might have a buzz below that number, legal, but still unbearable."

Blomberg and his $10,000 noise meters are helping Hudson Street dwellers decide whom to file complaints against: Firms leasing space inside the building? Or the building's owners?

Next stop: the 7th Avenue and 14th Street apartment of author Tom Bernardin (The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook), founder of Friends Against Noisy New York (FANNY). Yesterday Blomberg affixed sound meters to the facade of Bernardin's building to record 24 hours of New York noise. Now he peers at the digital readouts as Bernardin looks on. "The background here is 73.3 decibels," Blomberg says. That is about the level of a ringing telephone. Blomberg's meter has stored 24 hours of data in its built-in computer, both background noise and loud spikes. "Here's a spike of 104 decibels at 2:30A.M., probably a siren or car alarm," Blomberg points out. "Here's one off my screen, louder than 110 decibels!"

Bernardin, who buys earplugs by the boxful, will present Blomberg's data to city officials. He wants to convince them to begin noise-cutting steps. For instance, the city could specify quieter buses. Blomberg notes that in Europe, trucks and buses can be only half as loud as vehicles conforming to U.S. regulations. Next on the agenda, he adds, should be noise limits for air conditioners. "If the background din dropped, police cruisers and fire trucks and ambulances wouldn't need such loud sirens," he says.

Bernardin, a former teacher who was a National Park Service guide at Ellis Island, where he relished the silence, gazes sadly out his windows at the Greenwich Village traffic roaring by. "This apartment has wraparound sound," he laments. In a guidebook, he finds a reference to an early 1900s socialite who founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. "That was almost a century ago," he muses. "And the unnecessary noise is still unsuppressed."

Walking to a meeting, Blomberg and Bernardin spot a blue-suited executive clasping his hands over his ears. "Even in a wealthy neighborhood, we're creating acoustical slums," Blomberg says. Bernardin points out drivers operating remote car-door openers, making their cars toot. But here is a hitherto undiscovered noise source: a trailer truck offering curbside document shredding, accomplished via a churning and a thumping. "That's over 90 decibels," Blomberg announces. "It's louder than a . . . " But the churning drowns him out.

They arrive at the restaurant designated for the meeting Blomberg calls a New York Anti-Noise Summit. Economist Charles Komanoff, who coauthored a Noise Pollution Clearinghouse study on jet ski noise, reports he recently asked an audience: Noise pollution, or air pollution, from cars-if you could get rid of only one, which would it be? "A majority said noise," he says. "In my analyses, the costs from automobile air pollution are higher, but people are more bothered by noise from cars." Also at the meeting is noise-consultant Arline Bronzaft, professor emerita of psychology at City University of New York and an adviser to the city's League of the Hard of Hearing. She authored a groundbreaking study on noise's impact on children's learning.

Bronzaft, appointed by the mayor's office to a committee on transit complaints, decided to test a public school next to the elevated train tracks at 212th Street and Broadway. "A train went by for 30 seconds every 4.5 minutes; the noise level in classrooms on that side of the building reached 89 decibels," Bronzaft recalls. By the sixth grade, students in these noisy classrooms, demographically identical to students on the school's opposite-quiet- side, lagged a year in reading ability. Bronzaft's report prompted the installation of noise-hushing rubber pads on tracks by the school and acoustical ceilings inside. Result: noise inside the affected classrooms was reduced by 6 to 8 decibels. "When we did the study again, to my great surprise and happiness, the children were all reading at the same level," reports Bronzaft. (Today noise levels at P.S. 98 again present problems: the trains, older by more than 20 years, have grown creakier, and noisier, over time.)

Two hot issues are on this meeting's agenda-Internet Buzz and proposed new federal airport noise policy. The discussion becomes-is it fair to say?-noisy.

A few hours later, en route to Grand Central Station and his train home, Les Blomberg stops for a soda. In mid-quaff, he says: "Make noise unto others as you would have others make noise unto you!"

Even if the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse's three fulltime staff members, and five part-time workers, and assorted interns, and all the noise-troubled people who call for help, actually wanted to move to a deserted area, they would be out of luck. Specialists who trek to remote sites to record birdcalls and other natural sounds report that not even the North Pole or Antarctica or the Amazon is now free of unnatural noise, such as the roar of airliners or the buzz of chain saws.

Les Blomberg, born in 1961, grew up in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, where his parents owned grocery stores. In high school, he recollects, he took "boom box speakers outside to entertain myself. I wasn't overly polite," he confesses. "I was a teenage boy, which shows there is hope, that people can learn."

He completed a degree in mathematics at the University of Minnesota and went on, graduating in 1993 from the University of Colorado with a master's degree in environmental ethics. In 1994 he and his partner, Brenda Hausauer, took on a joint assignment for the State of Vermont, writing a state energy plan. They were living in a downtown apartment in Vermont's tiny capital when Blomberg became a noise activist.

On many a morning at 4:00, down Blomberg's narrow lane, the town's solitary street sweeper roared. Blomberg campaigned to convince officials that a city of 8,000 did not need wee-hours downtown mechanized street sweeping. Marshaling volunteers, he proved brooms outperformed the machine. Finally-the clincher-he offered to record the downtown sweeper's noise and, at the appropriate hour, precisely reproduce it outside the officials' suburban homes.

News of Blomberg's work reached Harriet Barlow, director of the Blue Mountain Center, an artists' retreat in New York's Adirondack Mountains. She disliked noise. With a $50,000 grant, she started the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. And she decided that Blomberg, trained in mathematics, physics and environmental philosophy, was just the fellow to head the new organization.

Dawn on Nantucket Island. Les Blomberg stands on a lawn, aiming his sound meter toward the Atlantic. He stands among gray saltbox cottages, some dating to the 1600s, buried in blue hydrangeas and yellow sunflowers, pink roses growing over their roofs. Nantucket is 16 miles long and about 6 miles wide, bigger than Manhattan. But its population is only 9,000, expanding to 60,000 in the summer. Noise? There is the ocean's rhythmic whoosh. Song sparrows. Goldfinches. Mourning doves. "OK," Blomberg says. "Here comes the first one."

At 6:30 A.M. an airplane flies over. "That's 58.4 decibels," Blomberg reports. At 6:07 A.M. another plane flies over, and another at 6:11 and again at 6:12, and at 6:16, 6:17, 6:18 . . .

Later, Blomberg drives to the epidemic's source, the island's little airport, with his host, Wade Greene, formerly a New York Times Magazine editor, now an environmental consultant to philanthropies. Greene also operates Wade Cottages, a vacation compound he created from his grandfather's summer home. He believes that airplane noise is going to hurt Nantucket tourism. Island stays are expensive. Vacationers value quiet. So do those who can afford a summer place here, where houses average $750,000 or more.

"Mainly we're dealing with two-engine Cessna 402 shuttle planes that fly to Hyannis, but there are private planes, too, and corporate jets," Greene is explaining. He points out a parked pickup's bumper sticker: "It Used To Be Nicer In Nantucket." Right now 26 airplanes are taxiing or waiting. Their noise is, literally, deafening. "You can get to this island only by ferry or by plane, and air traffic here is doubling every five years," says Greene. "This little airport is now the second busiest in all of New England, and sometimes the island of Nantucket has more flights coming and going than Boston's Logan Airport."

Blomberg is here to study Nantucket's noise dilemma. Greene contends many pilots ignore an agreement to fly one mile offshore. Blomberg shrugs. He calculates one mile is not enough: the planes should fly five to ten miles out.

Usually people affected by airliner noise have little political clout, Blomberg observes. "But here you can actually talk with aviation officials, and here the solution is simple- push the airplanes out to sea." He maintains: "If you can't do it on Nantucket, no place can do it."

Blomberg has also investigated the plight of the noise-beset residents of Loudon, New Hampshire. Today he sets up his equipment on a tripod in an immaculately kept gray ranch house's macadam driveway. "That's 78 decibels," he announces. Tom Early, the house's owner, a retired airline pilot, gray haired and gray mustached, looks on glumly. From his driveway you can see only his precisely trimmed lawn and white birches and one other home. But the roar from the New Hampshire International Speedway, a stock-car racetrack, seems to blot out' everything. "That just hit 82 decibels," Les Blomberg says, eyeing his instruments. He notes that a typical city noise restriction for daytime is about 60 decibels, more than four times quieter. "At night they'll have rock bands," Tom Early says, shaking his head. "Louder than hell. And they have fireworks. And they fire off cannons."

Mufflers might be a solution. But Blomberg believes the real issue is that noise can increase the secretion of adrenaline in humans, perhaps because our distant ancestors associated loud sounds, like a lion's roar or a baby's scream, with danger. The greater the sound, the greater the adrenaline rush. Blomberg theorizes that racetracks prefer to be as loud as possible because it excites the fans. "That's why exercise classes crank up the decibels, and rock bands, and action movies," he observes. "In effect, noise becomes a drug they're pumping out and into you."

Later, Blomberg visits Daimon Meeh, 14, who shows him a letter he sent to New Hampshire's governor, along with a CD recording he made just outside his farmhouse of the racetrack's roar. "I don't remember a time when I didn't have to listen to the noise of New Hampshire International Speedway (NHIS) in Loudon," Daimon wrote, noting the track's growth: "As the noise of the racetrack grew increasingly louder, people in my town got more and more annoyed." He analyzed for the governor the noise's steady increase over the years and the economic effects. Despite his efforts, a solution has not yet been achieved.

Letters to the governor seem to be in the air. Stopping back at Tom Early's house, Blomberg finds the retired airline pilot irritated. "I'm just sending a letter off to the governor, and I told her I vote too," Early says. "Last night we were in here with the windows closed, trying to watch My Fair Lady on TV, and sometimes we couldn't hear it because the noise from the track was so loud."

When the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse's communications director, attorney Vicky Parra Tebbetts, checks the e-mail, mainly she finds messages like this: "Finally a thread of hope! Thank you so much for your help!" Or a New Jersey mayor seeks assistance deciding about 120-decibel alarms the volunteer fire company has set up in residential neighborhoods. From Japan comes a request for help-U.S. fighters flying low over Hiroshima suburbs. A musician writes from Hawaii: "It's the worst of situations-here in paradise! Five days a week we pay 2 gardeners to use an artillery of weed-wackers, lawn mowers and blowers, powered saws etc. to drive us nuts," From California, the Hollywood Heights Association seeks help dealing with news helicopters hovering overhead during movie premieres. And there is this: "We have been battling a neighborhood noise bully who has about 250 roosters on his 2 acre lot." As mottoes go, the watchword adopted by the clearinghouse seems benign: "Good Neighbors Keep Their Noise To Themselves."

Reprinted with the permission of the authors, Richard & Joyce Wolkomir © 2001. This article originally appeared in the March, 2001, issue of Smithsonian magazine.