Noise Pollution Matters Too
Traffic sounds make it harder for birds to sing. What does all this noise do to us?
I and my college friends have made the drive from D.C. to Hillsdale many, many times. We crawl through the city to get on the I-495 W in Silver Spring. Then it’s the I-270 N, and then the I-70 to Breezewood—a living monument to man’s achievements with fossil fuels. Then it’s turnpike land nearly all the way to Pure Michigan.
For me, those first two stages always involve a sense of giddiness. Sure, there’s the general feeling of starting on a journey, but I mean a stronger lightheartedness than that. This is a notable lifting of weight from the shoulders, the dissipation of some sort of pressure, the need to laugh out loud. The Beltway is a spiritually dark place, strange and desperate with Masonic lines and ruthless strivers. Maybe it’s just escape from a psychic shadow that I feel as we slip out of Silver Spring and head north through Maryland, a pneumatic retreat, but I also think it’s a physical thing, too, though subtle.
D.C. is loud and bright. The sirens do not stop, nor do the aircraft. There is constant noise and incessant light. People talk about the energy of New York—the Big Apple, you know? A city that never sleeps. There may be something spiritual to that, too, but it’s also an enormous city, and it’s loud, and bright. Thesis: We do not take noise pollution or light pollution seriously enough. We know to clean our urban environments, but we should make them pleasant, too. Not every poison is chemical.
I don’t think I have to make much of a case for the ills of light pollution; everyone has been overwhelmed by those rare glimpses of the Milky Way, a sight our ancestors might almost have taken for granted except that God made his covenant with Abraham by its sign. People buy blackout curtains, fantasize about shooting the streetlights, consider the superiority of lamps to overhead lights, the diabolical brilliant dreariness of fluorescents. No, light explains itself.
But the noise we accept as part of urban life, and we do our best to tune it out, and do pretty well. We only begin to notice noise after it has fallen away, and even then we are often in the cocoon of a car, itself rumbling and roaring just beyond our conscious mind. I think that’s what I’m feeling as I leave a city. Yes, I hear the car I’m in, and the one in front of us, but I no longer sit in a great vibrating mass of sound, miles and miles of rumbles and humming and shrieking and wailing and roars. My bones are shaking less.
A recent article in Science Advances explored the damage noise pollution is doing to us by examining its effect on songbirds. Sound pressure too low to physically damage our ears can contribute to cardiovascular and metabolic disease. It has been connected to cognitive issues, as well, especially to learning and language deficits in children. Birds learning how to sing birdsongs is “the primary animal model for vocal learning and speech development in humans.” In the observed birds, the noise of traffic hindered vocal development and song learning. Moreover, noise was an enormous stressor for chicks and fledglings, suppressing their immune systems. We’re torturing the songbirds. They can’t sing as well as they used to. What are we doing to us?