noise pollution
Photo: Mauricio Alejo
The Quietest Place In America is an enclave of primeval beauty—massive trees, mossy logs, and giant ferns. A swift river flows nearby, and clouds hang low. The Hoh Rain Forest in Washington's Olympic National Park feels untouched by outside forces. And that, really, is what quiet is—an experience of the world as it was before we introduced artificial noise. I recently journeyed to the Hoh to escape the barrage of sound in my suburban world. My wife and I live in a reasonably tranquil neighborhood in Southern California, yet we sometimes resort to wearing earplugs inside our own home to take the edge off the blare around us. The day before I left for Washington, I'd heard leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, car alarms, reverse-gear alarms, one neighbor's television, another's barking dog, numerous buses, a couple of booming stereos, and a steady procession of jet airplanes. In the Hoh, as I rested against a log on the leafy forest floor, the cacophony back home became a faint memory, and the quiet felt restorative and healing.

Acoustic Attacks

Several weeks earlier, I had begun to research the toll that noise takes on the body and spirit. Noise pollution is "a modern plague," declared Louis Hagler, MD, and Lisa Goines in a 2007 Southern Medical Journal paper that summarized dozens of scientific studies. "Our society is beset by noise, which is intrusive, pervasive, and ubiquitous; most important of all, it is unhealthy."

Noise, I learned, needn't be loud to do damage. "Even ear-safe sound levels can cause nonauditory health effects, according to Wolfgang Babisch, PhD, a scientist with the German Federal Environmental Agency. As Babisch explained in a January 2005 editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives, noise affects sleep, fetal development, and the psyche. He cited a study revealing that schoolchildren exposed to high levels of aircraft noise suffer impairment in reading and memory. Goines and Hagler found that the elderly and those with depression are also particularly sensitive to noise pollution.

Given the general din of the modern world, the rest of us might be tempted to rationalize noise—to dismiss it as something we can simply get used to. But the research suggests that this is a risky approach. We process noise subconsciously as a danger signal that triggers a fight-or-flight response in our sympathetic nervous system. So even if we manage to tune it out or sleep through it, noise works insidiously, raising our blood pressure and heart rate, and causing hormonal changes with potentially far-reaching consequences, including anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headaches, sexual impotence, mood swings, and neuroses.

Environmental noise has also been linked to tinnitus (a chronic ringing in the ears that can lead to insomnia), irritability, and depression. Noise has even been associated with a small increase in cardiovascular disease. Totaling these effects, the World Health Organization estimates that in Western Europe, at least a million healthy life years are lost annually due to traffic-related noise alone.

There's an aesthetic impact, too. National Park Service senior scientist and sound specialist Kurt Fristrup, PhD, says the loss of quiet is "literally a loss of awareness." Quiet, he claims, is tragically disappearing, and most of us aren't noticing.

Next: Journeying to the quietest place in the lower 48