Is NOISE making you SICK?

It drives some people crazy, makes others weak and shiftless and can even kill. Here’s what the increasing bedlam around us does to our health and what we can do about it

JANICE TYRWHITT September 29 1956

Is NOISE making you SICK?

It drives some people crazy, makes others weak and shiftless and can even kill. Here’s what the increasing bedlam around us does to our health and what we can do about it

JANICE TYRWHITT September 29 1956

Is NOISE making you SICK?

It drives some people crazy, makes others weak and shiftless and can even kill. Here’s what the increasing bedlam around us does to our health and what we can do about it


Noise is all around us, an enemy invisible and inescapable. Walking and sleeping, we are submerged in an ocean of sound that thunders ceaselessly against our ears. Noise is like jealousy; most of the time you scarcely notice it, but once it catches your attention you can't get it out ot your mind. And even if you're not aware of it, noise can cause fatigue and physical strain and, occasionally, actual body damage that can't be repaired. When a doctor suggests rest and quiet, he's prescribing a remedy just as vital as a bottle of pills or a change in diet.

Dr. H. A. Lecdy, director of the Armour Research Foundation of the Illinois Institute of Technology, an organization currently fighting noise in the United States, has this to say about the problem of noise today: “It is one ot the most important causes of human unhappiness. Each of us wastcfully expends a great amount of energy every day in just shutting out intolerable noises, while at the same time keeping alert to let in those sounds we wish to hear, such as warning sounds in traffic. The frustration we feel from our inability to adjust ourselves to our noisy environment results in our suffering anxiety complexes.”

Dean V. O. Knudsen, of the University of California, agrees: "Noise is an enemy that attacks us on every conceivable front. It disturbs our rest, it strikes at our ability to think, it impairs our heading, obliterates conversation and threatens our health. There is substantial evidence that it can and sometimes does drive some people crazy. Today noise is becoming more destructive at an alarming rate.”

In return for high-speed transportation and mechanized production methods, the twentieth century has robbed us of silence. Though it's less than two hundred years since James Watt conceived the steam engine, one of the devices that touched off the age of industry. Watt would find today's noise almost incredible if he were to visit a modern city. And to his further astonishment, he’d find himself surrounded by people who didn’t seem to hear the noise at all.

It’s no wonder modern man is accustomed to noise. He wakes up to the jangle of an alarm clock and shaves with a buzzing electric razor. Even his breakfast food has a noise of its own. He plunges to work through a cacophony of blaring horns, clashing gears and sputtering exhausts to reach an office where the ringing of telephones and clattering of typewriters is muffled only by the steady hum of the air conditioning. When he calls home at noon, his wife can't answer the telephone until she's turned off the radio (tuned loud so she can hear a soap opera while she’s running the vacuum cleaner), and waited for the roar of a passing jet plane to die away. She reminds him to pick her up at six for a cocktail party, a kind of yelling contest at which the players try to outshout each other. At eight they make their shrill farewells, and he takes her to dinner at a restaurant with piped-in music. After spending the day surrounded by bells, sirens, clamorous voices and throbbing machinery, the poor fellow finally falls asleep wondering why he's so tired.

"We're alarmed about noise,” says Dr. F. R. Griffin, a Toronto industrial physician. "It's an urgent problem that hasn’t been recognized enough.” In factories more people are exposed to injurious noise than ever before. Noise is increasing faster than we can cope with it, even though our belated awareness of its dangers has forced us to adopt new approaches to building, community planning, automobile and aircraft design, industrial processes and hygiene, and the relationship between labor and management.

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Is noise making you sick? continued from page 21

I'hrce things have accelerated recent noise research. First, the production of jet aircraft, with their peculiarly penetrating high-intensity whine. Second, the development of instruments for measuring noise. Third, the alarming increase in claims for compensation for deafness made by workers in U. S. industries.

Basically, sound is assessed in two ways—its loudness is measured in decibels and its pitch is measured in cycles per second—and we generally find loud sounds and high-pitched sounds more annoying than soft and low-pitched noises. Ragged irregular sounds are usually more disagreeable than harmonious ones. But each of us responds to noise in such a highly personal way that we can't define it except as “unwanted sound.”

In the United States occupational deafness suddenly became a national problem in 1948, when the New York State Court of Appeals touched off a scramble for claims by listing it as a ground for compensation. It's estimated that in such highly industrialized states as New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin there are now more claims for occupational deafness than anyone can afford to pay.

So far the compensation problem isn't as urgent in Canada, where each case is settled by the decision of a Workmen’s Compensation Board rather than by litigation. Even in provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, where occupational deafness has been a ground for compensation for several years, few claims have been made because the worker has to show not only that he’s deaf, but that his deafness is lessening his working ability.

Even without a price tag, deafness is the most serious result of noise because it’s often permanent. Continued exposure to very loud noise destroys the hair cells in the inner ear, tiny links in the chain of ear mechanisms that transmit sound to the brain. A committee of experts recently reported to the New York State Workmen’s Compensation Board that most people exposed to noise levels above one hundred and twenty decibels— such as the noise of some pneumatic tools—for several hours daily will suffer permanent damage in a matter of months. A few highly susceptible people may be deafened by years of steady exposure to noise below the hundred-decibel level— the amount of noise made by a heavy transport truck going uphill.

The fact that some people are much more likely to go deaf than others, long suspected by ear specialists, was demonstrated in an experiment made at the University of Toronto in 1952 by Dr. John E. Goodwin and John B. Gallagher. They exposed a group of subjects to a hundred and fifteen decibels of noise for ten minutes—enough to cause a slight temporary loss of hearing. “About half of them,” says Gallagher, “had only a small hearing loss from which they quickly recovered, but the other half had their hearing ability cut by an average of about thirty-seven and a half decibels and they took longer to come back to normal.” After repeating the test under factory conditions, with similar results, the researchers suggested that their experiment might be used by employers to spot noisesusceptible workers and keep them out of unsuitable jobs.

Early in this century some factory owners placed partly deaf men in positions exposed to high-intensity noise, on the theory that you can’t spoil a rotten apple. This practice has been discarded since doctors learned that any damage to your ears makes them more susceptible to further injury.

The inner-ear damage produced by noise is particularly harmful because you may suffer hearing loss for months without noticing it. The level at which sound may injure your ear is below the level at which you first feel pain. Since this type of deafness begins by cutting oil' your ability to hear high-pitched sounds, you may not be aware of it until it reaches the point where you have trouble hearing the middle range of sounds that includes speech. A similar but less abrupt pattern of hearing loss is part of the natural process of aging: even under normal conditions your hearing starts to decline before you’re thirty.

Most of the time we accept noise as a natural hazard like rain. It’s only occasionally that someone remembers that noise, unlike weather, is most often manmade and frequently unnecessary, and launches a spectacular protest. In Coventry, R.I., for instance, a sixty-two-year-old woman was so furious at being awakened by a helicopter that she peppered it with a shotgun. Prisoners at Langhold penitentiary in Sweden blamed a 1954 rash of breakouts and narcotic smuggling on jazz music from a nearby fair ground. “After all,” they complained, “we were sentenced to hard labor, not torture.”

A man in Montgomery. Ala., was fined for barking back at dogs who kept him awake. And a Toronto woman called up an executive of a chocolate company at two in the morning to object to the noise of his coconut-breaking machines. “From the sound you would imagine that a horse is trying to kick the end out of a barn,” she testified later in court. “It is a wild horse but it is unable to kick the barn out so it falls through the floor.”

One of the earliest crusaders against noise was Mrs. Julia Rice, of New York City, who claimed that a tooting tugboat on the Hudson River interfered with her peace of mind. Not content with winning a lawsuit against the steamboat company, in 1904 she founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, which later became the National Noise Abatement Council.

In Britain the Noise Abatement League was formed in 1933 under the leadership of the late Lord Horder, physician to the royal family, who announced, “Doctors are definitely convinced that noise wears down the human nervous system, so that both the natural resistance to disease and the natural recovery from disease are lowered.”

Perhaps in reaction to the Jazz Age. when apartment living, loud radios and clattering roadsters first made noise fashionable. practically everyone in the Thirties made it the whipping boy for almost every evil. Sir Robert ArmstrongJones, a British doctor, suggested that the worker whose sleep was disturbed by noise might turn to drink or drugs, and Prof. George Robertson, a psychiatrist, commented. "Noise causes nervous and mental exhaustion, leading to neurasthenia. Undoubtedly loss of sleep is one of the causes of insanity.”

In 1934 Prof. G. R. Anderson, of the University of Toronto, predicted that the noise of a big city would drive its inhabitants insane within a few years unless it was restricted, while author J. B. Priestley wrote, “It may not be long before quietness is the most expensive luxury on the market.”

Even more extravagant charges were hurled against ultrasound—sound pitched so high that it’s inaudible to the human ear. Workers in jet stations in the Forties blamed ultrasound for fatigue, nausea, headache and loss of muscular co-ordination. But Dr. Walter A. Rosenblith, associate professor of Communications Biophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says, “There is definite evidence that ultrasonic frequencies at the energy levels generated by current aircraft power plants do not constitute a hazard to man.”

Even if ultrasound isn’t dangerous, its effects are bizarre. Because it’s converted to heat when it strikes an object, ultrasound can pop popcorn, kill insects or burn your fingers. A company that installed an ulfasonic burglar alarm found its floor littered with the bodies of mice slain by sound. Ultrasound has been used to make meat tender by tearing apart its fibres, to pasteurize milk and to whip up milkshakes in seconds. In industry ultrasonic equipment is used to remove grease from medals and to detect flaws in materials. Medical researchers are investigating the possibility of ultrasonic treatment for neuritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis and various disorders of tendons. Some German scientists claim it can be used against certain forms of cancer, but most doctors on this continent are less optimistic.

The question of whether noise of normal pitch and intensity affects our working ability is equally controversial. Tests have shown, for instance, that typists expend nineteen percent more energy in noisy surroundings. But Dr. E. B. Newman, chairman of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, points out that a life-insurance company, pleased when soundproofing increased its office output, was astonished to find that its workers kept right on at their new high level after some of tfie acoustic material was removed. The thing that had boosted their efficiency wasn’t the reduction of noise; it was the discovery that the company was concerned about their working conditions.

A recent Paris campaign against traffic noise has led to an impressive drop in the accident rate. In September 1953 the city had 2,607 automobile accidents; in the same month in 1954 the accident total dropped to 1,712, although there v/ere more cars on the streets. On the other hand, the accident rate has risen in Rome since that city clamped down on noise in 1950.

But even the most ardent apologists for noise can’t deny its peculiar power to harass us. Why does noise upset us? Partly because we can’t escape a disagreeable sound as we can avoid an annoying sight. We don’t have to look at the unsightly excavation down the street, but the bulldozers that dig it assault our ears all day long. We have no control over other people’s noise.

On the other hand, the sound of our own hammering, shouting or off-key whistling doesn't bother us because we can turn it off whenever we like, and because we know what’s coming next. We enjoy the feeling that noise is working for us; the sound of our own food mixer or outboard motor gives us a sense of accomplishment. Factory workers sometimes consider noise a sign of plant prosperity, so their jobs are secure.

Some people grow so used to working in the midst of thundering machinery or hammering typewriters that they can’t work in a quiet room. They find that high-level noise masks all other distracting sounds and helps them to concentrate. A Montreal woman spending a holiday in a house beside a power station near Shipshaw, Quebec, was soon so used to the noise of the station's waterfall that she once woke up in the middle of the night, startled by the silence when the dam was suddenly closed.

All of us, attuned to some degree of noise, would find the complete absence of noise more exhausting than the loudest common noises. The U. S. Army, testing an absolutely quiet room, found that no one could stand more than thirty minutes in a silence broken only by his own breathing and the beating of his heart.

Our reaction to sudden noises is partly due to the close link between noise and fear. From the days when primitive tribesmen terrified their enemies with tom-toms and Joshua’s priests demolished the walls of Jericho with trumpets, to the nights when Hitler harried the people of Britain with bombs, noise has always warned of danger. According to an experiment undertaken by Dr. John B. Watson. of Johns Hopkins Hospital, newborn babies have only two fears that are instinctive, not learned—fear of falling and fear of noise. Less than ten years ago a seven-year-old girl was frightened to death when a motorist suddenly honked his horn as she crossed a street in San Diego, Calif. Normally healthy, she ran home in a nervous state, developed convulsions and died.

Your body responds to startling sounds with characteristic fear reactions. Your muscles contract, making you jump involuntarily. Your pulse beats faster, your breath comes more quickly, your blood pressure rises, your saliva and gastric juices How more slowly and the normal action of your stomach slows down. “Noise may seriously affect the normal digestive functions and help to cause socalled nervous indigestion." says Dr. James I . McCartney, of New York. “Of all the hazards of noise, the effect upon the nervous system is the most serious.”

If you work for some time in highintensity noise, you feel a sense of pressure that warns you your body is reacting to stress. Because it has to stay constantly on guard against this stress, your nervous system begins to show signs of strain — fatigue, irritability, dizziness, vomiting, muscular weakness, blurred vision. Very loud noise activates the adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the glands that stimulate your body’s reaction to all kintis of stress. If the noise is too severe or too prolonged, this cortex may produce too much of its adrenocortical secretion, and thus throw your whole hotly off balance.

Intense noise may even precipitate epileptic seizures in people and animals subject to them. In 1940 N. R. F. Maier, of the University of Michigan, used bells, buzzers, jangling keys and hissing jets of air to send rats into violent convulsions. “The epileptic individual would be in an extremely hazardous location in the noise field surrounding a jet engine,” says Dr. Arthur A. Ward. Jr., of the University of Washington.

Flow does this stress show up in men who work in noise levels up to one hundred and fifty decibels? Dr. Ward C. Halstead. of the University of Chicago, questioned ten men working on jet maintenance and found that nine of them had trouble sleeping and relaxing at home. Most of them tuned radio or television too loud for other listeners. Several admitted they were short-tempered, and complained of lessened sexual power.

When your nerves are already frayed by illness, worry or fatigue, some noises assume a significance out of all proportion to their intensity. A crying baby has been known to drive its frantic mother to murder. Your resentment of your neighbor’s blaring TV set may stem partly from envy if you don’t own one yourself.

You may be emotionally involved with noise even if you're the person who makes it. A 1948 survey of the effect of noise on two thousand British families found that people suffered more from the fear of disturbing the neighbors than from the noise the neighbors made.

“Noise is often made the burden of complaint that has deeper causes as well.” Sir Frederic Bartlett, of Cambridge, once pointed out. “A man, tired, run down, bored, maladjusted, uninterested, seizes upon anything outstanding from his environment to explain to himself and to others the unsuccess that life has brought him. Noise is one of the things that stands out prominently on almost any background. So it is not too much to say that whenever, in any community, a sweeping and passionate condemnation of noise is popular, there are almost certainly a lot of ill-adjusted people.”

The most vigorous antinoise campaigns are being waged south of the border. While New York and Philadelphia are trying hard to reduce traffic noise, Memphis, Atlanta and Jacksonville claim to have succeeded. Fast year Canada’s most urgent noise problem—paper-mill noise —was solved by the ingenious inventions of Dr. George Thiessen, head of the Acoustics Group in the Division of Applied Physics at the National Research Council. One of the machines that turn pulp into paper is the couch roll, a huge perforated cylinder that sucks the water out of the wet pulp. The air rushing back through the holes into the cylinder has such a powerful, high-pitched screech that many workers are partly deaf by the time they reach middle age.

Using calculations so intricate that they had to be worked out by an electronic brain at the University of Toronto Computation Centre, Thiessen designed a new couch roll with the holes drilled in a spiral pattern, so that the sound waves cancel each other out. The new design worked so well that it will be used in all couch rolls produced from now on. Thiessen also suggested ways to modify the couch rolls currently in use, since their cost—forty to fifty thousand dollars—prevents mills from scrapping them before they wear out.

Just as a stopgap, Thiessen solved a puzzle that has baffled industrialists for years—how to make an car protector that really keeps out noise. Although ear plugs work better than soft spongerubber ear muffs, most people find the muffs more comfortable. Thiessen designed an ear muff that would be hard and soft at the same time—hard enough to keep out vibration, soft enough to fit the contours of the head. His answer was a doughnut-shaped vinylitc sheath fitted around the ear and filled with a mixture of water and glycerine. The liquid is soft until it’s fitted around the ear, then it's held rigid under pressure by the headband.

In the long run the best way of fighting noise is to eliminate its source. Factories can be designed so that noisy machines are isolated or enclosed, and serviced regularly to keep moving parts oiled and worn parts replaced. Apartments and offices can be fitted with air conditioning to isolate them from the noise outside.

City noise can be controlled by the enforcement of anti-noise bylaws, forbidding unnecessary noise such as loud hornhonking and unmuffled cars and trucks. Communities can provide parks and treelined boulevards to absorb noise.

Architects can equip houses with acoustic material to offset the fact that today's bright bare rooms with their skeletal Scandinavian furniture and wide windows reflect sound, whereas the overstuffed chairs, heavy curtains and voluminous clothing of our grandmothers tended to absorb it.

Wherever we live and work, we can help to eliminate noise by making quietness a habit. If we keep our children from shouting under the neighbor's window when he's sleeping late on Sunday morning, he's less likely to retaliate by playing his hi-fi at top volume after midnight. By refusing to buy noisy equipment we can force manufacturers to silence their products.

After all. practically every noise that assaults our ears today is made by man or one of his inventions. Noise is the product of our own wit and audacity, and the power—and the responsibility— ol controlling it is in our hands,