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Remember the sound of silence?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2004



Ah, the sounds of spring! Birds chirping, peepers peeping, a breeze rustling in the trees - as lawn mowers rumble, cellphones ring, and car stereos throb their way through neighborhoods.

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Warm weather brings all kinds of sounds to life. But hearing the natural world in springtime is getting harder than ever no matter where you live, according to Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vt.

"Without question our society is much noisier than it used to be," he says. "People used to move to the suburbs to get away from it, but now they have to listen leaf blowers, riding mowers, eight-lane highways. We've brought our noise with us from the city."

Noise pollution, which has been a back-burner issue for decades, is causing new stirrings of revolt. Along with legislation at the federal level, antinoise campaigns are under way at the state and local level as residents rally for tighter noise ordinances in a bid to reclaim their soundscape.

"Right now we're at the infancy of the antinoise movement - where air and water pollution were in the 1960s," says Ted Rueter, an author and executive director of Noise Free America. [Editor's note: In the original version, Rueter was misidentified.]

Noise pollution activists like Dr. Rueter say they get a lot of e-mail berating them for bothering about noise when there are more serious issues out there. But an even larger and growing number of responses come from those who are fed up with the din.

"We're still at the point where people need to know that others feel the same way," Rueter says. "It's like secondhand smoke used to be. People were once afraid to speak up for fear of being called a nut or kook."

Transportation - from planes, trains and cars - was the nation's major source of noise for the first half of the 20th century. At least since World War II, though, other noisemakers have steadily intruded into mostly quiet areas like national parks, rural areas, and wilderness. Now more recent inventions are proliferating and adding to the mix, Mr. Blomberg says.

Car alarms, jet skis, cellphones, snowmobiles, chain saws, and riding lawn mowers have pumped up the volume in every walk of life. Now, there's "the Beast," a cherry red Ford Bronco with a 48,000-watt stereo system.

"Boom cars," along with their kin "vroom cars" with modified mufflers, came of age in the 1990s. But the Beast is a boomer with few peers. With shatterproof glass and a huge power supply, it can pump out 175 decibels - eight times the sound of a Boeing 747.

Alma Gates, the silver-haired grandmother who created and owns the Beast, lets it out to play only to blow competitors away at "sound drag racing" competitions. Yet the boom-car phenomenon, urged on by car-stereo manufacturers, has produced thousands of Beast-wannabes cruising America's streets. ("Shake the living, wake the dead," is speaker manufacturer Cerwin Vega's slogan. Sony offers: "All new ways to offend.")

And that's a problem for Carla Moore, from Youngstown, Ohio. For years she put up with boomers, until the subsonic vibrations began shaking things on her mantel. Finally she decided to fight it with citizen action.

In February 2002, Youngstown was designated one of the "noisy dozen," by Noise Free America. (Jesse Ventura recently won the award for touting his new Hummer and its powerful stereo system.)

After news articles about the designation appeared, Ms. Moore began appealing to the city to strengthen its noise ordinance. It did. Now Youngstown police find it easier to cite boomers and the noise level has improved - though not enough to suit Moore.

"We used to have hummingbirds and rabbits come to our yard," she says. "But since the booming started you don't really hear birds anymore in the warm months. I used to sit and listen to the wind in the trees, watch TV, work on the computer. Now all we can hear are these cars running up and down the street. You can't hear anything else."

Street noise is the No. 1 problem Americans cite when asked what bothers them most in their neighborhoods. In a 2001 US Census survey, 11.8 million households (out of 106 million reporting) said street or traffic noise was bothersome. An additional 4.5 million residents said it was so bad they wanted to move.

Standing on a Boston street corner, Blomberg gazes at a tripod-mounted decibel meter - taking sound-level readings that show the traffic at about 70 decibels. A horn blast and accelerating diesel truck engine send the meter soaring to 80 decibels. That's really loud because every 10 decibel increase effectively doubles the noise.

Blomberg, who hold a master's degree in philosophy, says the increasing noise is becoming an environmental-justice issue because poor communities often suffer from loud noise at night.

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