Everyday noise is killing us

Battle sound damages soldiers, but everyday noise hurts folks at home

Posted Feb 25, 2010

War is noisy. It's supposed to be. U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq harass the enemy by using excessive amounts of noise. It's a tactic as old as the battle cry.

When hunting al-Qaeda units in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers are reported to have brought up cargo containers of equipment that fired death metal songs at excruciatingly painful levels into the mountain tunnels to flush out terrorists. Another tactic, apparently implemented in conjunction with Gen. McChrystal's kinder gentler strategies, is to scream F-16s at low altitude over enemy positions. This is useful in areas where rocketing might cause civilian casualties.

But that same noise is injuring our troops. Tinnitus-ringing in the ears usually caused by hearing damage-is the chief complaint of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And hearing-damage is by leaps and bounds the number one diagnosis of all personnel injured in those theaters of combat.

It's bad enough that armed forces personnel should suffer in this way as they defend our Western way of life. What is less well known is that our noisy Western way of life is harming each and every one of us, not only by damaging our hearing, but by boosting stress levels to the point where our general physical and psychological health is affected.

To put it bluntly: Our own noise is killing us. Consider these facts: One in ten Americans, 30 million of us, are exposed to physically harmful levels of noise in the workplace. Thirty million Americans also suffer from tinnitus. Sixty-five percent of Europeans, or 450 million people, suffer noise levels judged unhealthy by the European Union.

Some studies indicate that chronic exposure to levels of sound greater than 50 to 55 decibels-the volume of nearby conversation, or local traffic-can boost stress hormones, blood pressure, arterial hypertension, and heart rates. All of these effects are potentially lethal.

When I lived in New York, and measured the average intensity of my home environment, I found that I lived semi-permanently in the damage zone of 50 decibels-plus. I suspect that many, if not most of us, live in that zone.

Which is why all of us need, to some extent, to create a personal silence. Personal silence, in the sense of gaining respite from chronic excessive noise that can hurt our health. But a personal silence, also, in the sense of finding an oasis of quiet where we can cut free from the stress of constant noise; a place to regroup psychologically and emotionally.

That oasis can be as simple, and cheap, as ear plugs, or noise-reducing headphones. It can be as radical (and expensive) as a getaway to a secluded hilltop cabin on a Caribbean island. In future blog posts I will explore some of these remedies.

One thing, though, follows from the above: in order to live well, we must sometimes pay attention to enemies less obvious than foreign terrorists. We have to consider, too, something our culture has so far ignored, and at times even concealed: our subjection to the homegrown tyranny of noise.