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Pedal Power solutions to petroleum dependence and polluting vehicles: Arcata Library Bikes, Pedal Power Produce, and more!

CAOE - Committee Against Oil Exploration - stop offshore oil drilling to protect sensitive habitats and cut petroleum dependence.

Culture Change through music! The Depavers eco-rock!

Take our Pledge for Climate Protection and learn about the Global Warming Crisis Council.

SEI hometown action!
Arcata city council's proclamation against war on Iraq and Kyoto Protocol proclamation.

Overpopulation has become a reality.  Overpopulation Resources and News Tidbits

Sail Transport Network

Fact Sheets
Press Releases

Long Distance


Vehicle noise and the toll on people

by Jonathan Orlando

"Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere." - Dr. William H. Stewart, former U.S. Surgeon General.

At six a.m. I am awakened by my neighbor revving the engine on his old pick up. At eight a.m, as I ride my bike through rush hour traffic, all thoughts are drowned out by the constant roar of passing vehicles. Around noon I try to have a conversation with a friend while eating lunch at an outside cafÈ downtown. After five minutes of yelling over the noise of an endless string of vehicles, we decide to move inside.

Ok, by now youíve probably gotten the idea. Vehicles are loud and annoying and they disturb everything from your ability to sleep to your ability to think or simply enjoy some time in the sun. But what you probably didnít realize is that vehicle noise pollution has been found to cause everything from high-blood pressure and stress to migraine headaches and even birth defects. Or, that while the normal level of hearing for humans is between 0-25 decibels (dB), the average roadway noise is around 85dB, slightly above what many researchers have found to be considered "dangerous."

While noise pollution has been found to cause a number of disturbing effects on the health of society, it has continued to be one of the most overlooked issues by the media and our society as a whole. We can only speculate as to the real reasons for this. We can blame the automotive and oil industries for spending millions to convince us that we need a vehicle, thereby decreasing our ability to be concerned about such an issue. After all, how could something so necessary produce something so negative? Another reason, that might be a bit easier for the masses to accept, might be that while pollution of the air and water is disturbing to the eye, noise pollution has no visible impact. Also, with visible pollution, the direct correlation between cause and effect is easy to detect. The roar of traffic, honking horns and revving engines are not as easy to see or feel, compared to brown haze and burning lungs.


Researchers have found vehicle noise pollution to be a major cause of stress. Stress, however, has become so prevalent in todayís society that it becomes difficult for the average citizen to become concerned about stress caused by vehicle noise pollution or to see their stress as a direct result of vehicle noise pollution.

The truth remains though, that noise is a powerful source of stress. It is true that some sounds may be found to be soothing and joyous, such as certain music or the sound of songbirds. But we donít need an opinion poll to find that for the vast majority of us (even those that cherish their Ford Expeditions) vehicle noise pollution is not considered relaxing, but instead is annoying, or at the very least, unwanted. And research shows that our body perceives noise that is considered ëunwanted or intrusiveí as a threat or warning. And even if the noise is not a threat or warning, biological changes still occur and strong stress reactions are triggered. Stress reactions include the release of several stress hormones, changes in heart rate and rhythm, rise in blood cholesterol levels and digestive upsets. It becomes easy then to see how vehicle noise pollution can be traced to a multitude of stress related illnesses.

Among these is high-blood pressure. When people are exposed to an unwanted or intrusive noise on a consistent basis, they are put into a near constant state of agitation, with an accompanying increase in blood pressure. What this implies is that, although you might feel like it, you do not become immune to the noise pollution or the effects of it. You might feel as though you have become used to it, but your body is still reacting in the same manner. If this condition persists, it will have the effect of high-blood pressure. Since researchers have consistently linked long-term exposure to noise pollution and high-blood pressure, noise pollution has been deemed a possible cause of such cardio-vascular diseases as heart disease.

Another side effect that researchers have linked to stress, induced by vehicle noise pollution, is a weakened immune system. For years researchers and doctors alike have been finding a growing correlation between the health of oneís immune system and the level of stress he or she is exposed to. When stress hormones are released during prolonged exposure to something like vehicle noise pollution, our immune systems are negatively impacted. According to a study conducted at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, "uncontrollable stress induced by noise pollution produces high levels of cortisol, which suppresses immune system functioning and may have a prolonged detrimental effect for health." This can be especially critical for those with already weakened immune systems such as those with AIDS or cancer.

Birth defects

Even more troubling is the effect that vehicle noise pollution can have on the unborn. Because the unborn are not completely protected from environmental noise, nor from their motherís response (stress) to noise pollution, they essentially react in the same manner as the rest of us. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in a study from 1997 that "exposure to excessive noise during pregnancy may result in high frequency hearing loss in newborns, and may by associated with prematurity and intrauterine growth retardation." Loud or abrupt noises have also been found to disturb the fetus directly, causing an increase in heart rate. A most critical time in which irreversible developmental problems can occur is within the first 14-60 days after conception. Since this is when central nervous system and vital organ development is taking place, disturbances during this time can lead to birth defects and low birth weights. Studies have also shown that stress (as a product of noise pollution) causes the constriction of uterine blood vessels which supply nutrients and oxygen to a developing baby. Being deprived of these vital elements could undoubtedly lead to complications in birth.

Effects on hearing

Not all the effects of vehicle noise pollution are related to stress, however. Millions of citizens worldwide are hampered by hearing loss, much of which is sound induced. A quick description of how the ear works is necessary at this point: When noise reaches the inner ear it is transduced by hair cells, which line the inner ear, into nerve impulses and then is transmitted to the brain, where it is perceived as sound.

There are essentially two ways in which sound induced hearing loss occurs: short term exposure and long-term exposure. Short term exposure refers to loud bursts of sound that exceed 120dB (threshold for pain), such as rock concerts or gun shots. Fortunately, this hearing loss is often only temporary.

Such is not the case, however, with long term exposure. "Hearing loss due to prolonged noise exposure is generally associated with destruction of the hair cells of the inner ear. The number of hair cells damaged or destroyed increases with increasing intensity and duration of noise and, in general, progressive loss of hair cells is accompanied by progressive loss of hearing." (World Health Organization, Sweden 1995) One then, cannot simply expect that by disappearing into the silence of the forests for a while, the effects of hearing loss will be reversed. Once the hair cells are destroyed, they do not grow back, and your hearing will never be what it once was.

According to the Environmental Protection Agencyís Office of Noise and Abatement Control (which disappeared during the Reagan Administration) in order to protect from hearing loss, one should not be exposed to more than 70 dB for an extended period of time. Meanwhile the average city traffic is 85 decibels and in larger cities like New York, the noise level often exceeds 90db. Les Bloomberg, director of Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier Vermont, has stated that "87% of Americaís city dwellers are exposed to noise so loud it has the potential to degrade hearing capacity over time."

It is therefore imperative that we continue to push for a decrease in vehicle travel to reduce vehicle noise. Because we cannot expect everyone to want to ride ten miles to work, however, we must not only push for an increase in bike lanes and mass transit, but also for intelligent development. This development should encourage the increase of mass transit, bike, and foot travel, through proper planning and zoning, as well as the use of parks and increased vegetation to decrease the amount of noise.

As an example, Boulder, Colorado comes to mind. Parks and green spaces are dispersed throughout the city, and I didnít have much trouble navigating my way around town on bike. And from what I could gather, the mass transit system is effective (thatís saying a lot for a mass transit system in the United States) and only seems to be getting better. Most importantly (for the purpose of this article), it was probably the quietest city of its size that Iíve visited.

We must create a society and lifestyle that caters to the bike and walking, and not to the steel beast. We must make urban sprawl a thing of the past and instead concentrate our growth in an intelligent manner. Stop building intimidatingly wide roads with no sidewalks through subdivisions and then connecting each subdivision with downtown by means of superhighways. Instead, widen the sidewalks and bike lanes and narrow the roads. Intermingle places of commerce with places of residence so getting a quart of milk isnít a six-mile trip. Reestablish the idea of parks and green zones to be used as buffers against noise. Replace the parking meters with trees and the parking spots with shrubbery. Turn the parking lots into parks and put a bus stop at every one. Beginning to sound like a bit of a dream? Well, hey, only about a hundred years ago, so was the idea of a car.


Articles of interest:
Measuring and controlling the actions of governments 

Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results. 
WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius 

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.


Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California. Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)

Culture Change mailing address: P.O. Box 3387 , Santa Cruz , California 95063 USA
  Telephone 1-215-243-3144 (and fax)

Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit torganization.