No one has measured exactly how much louder our society has become, but in the past 30 years, "there has been an unprecedented growth in noise," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that aims to turn down the volume. Compared with those in the seventies, cars are traveling 175 percent more miles and airliners are flying 273 percent further; we have invented new sources of clamor, such as key chains that trigger cars to honk when they're locked, blaring video games, toys that beep and play music, and leaf blowers that are so earsplitting that their use has been banned in some communities.
Noise now ranks as Americans' number-one neighborhood complaint—higher than crime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, more than four million Americans are so bothered by the noise in their community that they want to move. Blomberg says the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse gets 150 to 200 calls and e-mails every week, most of them from people who are being driven to distraction.
The never-ending cacophony is taking its toll. Studies link noise (which, fittingly, is derived from the Latin word nausea) to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and immune suppression; it's also a major source of sleep disruption, which leads to fatigue, irritability, and decreased job and school performance. Numerous clinical symptoms have been attributed to noise exposure, including nausea, headache, decreased sex drive, anxiety, loss of appetite, hearing loss, and even premature birth and decreased birth weight. The sound doesn't have to be loud to affect us: A study published in October 2000 in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that when women worked in cubicle-style offices with low-level noise, they had elevated levels of epinephrine—a hormonal indicator of stress—in their urine. As former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart once said, "Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience."
Think of noise pollution as secondhand smoke: Even when you're minding your own business, you're forced to put up with it. Like when you're at a stoplight next to a car with the stereo booming so loudly you can feel the vibrations. Or when you're eating in a restaurant and a stranger's cell phone starts blaring an irritating tune. I can relate. When I'm working in my home office and my two Australian shepherds begin to bark in unison at whatever they spot through the glass front door (a jogger, an armadillo, a lawn mower), I can't even hear myself think. The more they ignore my pleas to be quiet, the more impatient I feel. As this scene repeats itself throughout the day, it becomes clear that the noise is more than a challenge to my concentration; it's messing with my physiology. My heart races, my skin gets hot, and I feel so anxious I want to scream.
There's a good explanation for these physical symptoms and it traces back millions of years to evolutionary survival, says David Simon, MD, cofounder and medical director of the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, which specializes in holistic and mind-body medicine. In prehistoric times, if we were sleeping in a tree and suddenly heard a noise, we would need to wake up to keep from being bitten by a snake or eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Today, we still gear up for danger whenever noises intrude. "The nervous system is wired to raise our heart rate and our blood pressure, increase our breathing, and pump out sweat and stress hormones when there's a perceived threat," Simon says.