New York — In a world that often equates loudness with progress and power, shhh-ing technology takes a back seat to more immediate environmental concerns such as air and water. Nevertheless, noise is pervasive.
There is the motorcyle driver who revs his engine late at night. During the day, the sound of a pneumatic drill jars pedestrians near a construction site. A loud lawn mower can spoil a lazy Saturday morning.
The battle against noise is at best scattershot in the United States. Yet there have been local initiatives and technological advances recently that may mean quieter communities.
In New York City there are now ``radio free'' zones. In New Jersey, a steel plant has undergone some $3 million in restructuring to lower its noise output. Colorado Springs has one of the nation's toughest noise-control enforcement program.
Noise pollution -- a term some see as redundant -- is recognized worldwide as a tangible, serious problem. Nearly 130 million people in 24 countries are living in the presence of unacceptable noise, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Within the OECD countries, it is traffic noise -- from airplanes, trains, trucks, autos, motorcycles -- that is the most often cited offender. The report on the state of the environment went so far as to blame high noise levels as the main cause for family disturbances in homes.
Though, there is some disagreement as to the effects of noise, many experts view it as a health problem. They cite hearing damage and stress over the long term. Others claim that people adapt to noise, as long as it is not at damaging levels. No one, however, denies that noise annoys.
``You can't shut your ears to noise,'' says Robert Bennin, director of noise abatement for New York City's Department of Environmental Protection.
Most areas that do have noise laws on the books target traffic. Colorado Springs residents were bothered in the early 1970s by large numbers of cars with loud, modified exhaust systems. In developing a solution to that problem, a comprehensive noise-control program was adopted.
Colorado Springs today has five full-time noise control officers and two motorcycles to help enforce regulations on off-road dirt bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles operating near residential areas. Though the focus for noise reduction in Colorado Springs continues to be vehicular traffic, loud parties, lawns mowers, and barking dogs are also tracked down.
``We have trouble with chain saws in the fall,'' says Joe Zunich, architect of the program. One of the most unusual of the city's sonorous situations, says Mr. Zunich, was a bagpiper who chose to play on a street corner. In such cases, compliance rather than fines are emphasized, he says.
In New Jersey, one of the biggest causes of noise complaints comes from businesses situated near residential areas. Large fans from a dry cleaner, or an air compressor at a supermarket, produce a din frequently irritating to nearby neighbors.
In New York, construction clamor and the droning of air conditioners rank high on the list of irritants. The city currently limits construction work to specific hours and days of the week, and certain equipment must have mufflers. The regulation has been fairly effective, says Mr. Bennin, who has 42 air and noise inspectors responding to complaints.
Airport noise, which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, is also a common complaint. Though experts say jet engines are much quieter than they used to be, continuing residential development near airports and more air traffic have kept the problem alive.
During the 1970s, the federal government did have a noise-abatement office operating under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency. Previously such areas as interstate rail and trucking, air compressors, and motor vehicles were regulated. But enforcement has been substantailly halted under the Reagan administration.
But some say that since the federal government has pulled out of noise regulation, some state efforts have also dried up. Robert DiPolvere of the National Association of Noise Control Officials says just a handful of states and localities have continued with strong programs including Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, and California.
``The fact is noise is the only pollution that is really wanted by a certain segment,'' says Mr. DiPolvere.
Some years ago, he says, a vacuum-cleaner manufacturer withdrew a quieter model after it was rejected by skeptical consumers. They didn't think it worked as well as a more powerful-sounding machine, says DiPolvere.
Nonetheless, technology improves. Gary Koopman of the University of Houston has been working with active noise control. Instead of simply masking loud noises, scientists are ``canceling'' sound by using one type of sound wave to counteract another. He has used this technology to quiet street sweepers in West Berlin.
``Active noise control will play a very important part in designing quiet machinery, and a quieter environment,'' says Dr. Koopman.