Sorry, what was that you said? I couldn't hear you. The garbage truck was going by. An airplane flew overhead. My son is listening to the stereo. The dishwasher is running. The gardener is mowing the lawn. The TV is on. It's rush hour. The baby is crying. My neighbor is using his chain saw. My daughter is practicing on her conga drums. I had to run the garbage disposal for a minute. The people next door are having a party. We live pretty close to the freeway. My husband is vacuuming.
Would you mind speaking up?
We don't really think of noise as pollution. We think of it as a nuisance. Something to get used to.
But noise isn't something you get used to. It's something you stop hearing because you don't hear as well anymore.
Experts used to think that gradual hearing loss was an inescapable part of growing old. Not so. Now they recognize that hearing loss is caused by noise, every loud noise you ever heard snipping away at the delicate hair cells that carry sound to the auditory nerve.
About 10 million Americans have suffered permanent hearing loss from loud noises, according to the National Institutes of Health. Nearly 20 million are exposed to levels that can cause damage. And another 40 million live with noise loud enough to disrupt sleep and work.
But loss of hearing is only the most obvious ill effect of loud noise. Noise has also been linked to high blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular problems, strokes and nervous disorders. In studies of workplace exposure, noise has been shown to induce changes in memory, alertness, balance, awareness and ability to read.
Noise, defined as any unwelcome sound, is a form of pollution every bit as real as the brown haze hanging over the horizon. But, unlike air pollution, there are certain cultural connotations associated with noise that make it harder to combat.
Noise is macho. Look at (listen to!) motorcycles, guns, chain saws and "Top Gun." (Or do I mean "Roaring Thunder"?) Statistics bear this out: Men in Western cultures suffer earlier and greater hearing loss than women.
People who complain about noise are wimps. Old maids. Poor sports. And noise pollution is seen as a not very serious problem. Kind of a silly issue, really.
I propose that, if you can hear yourself think, you give the matter of noise some thought. The first step is: Pipe down. Lower the volume on your stereo. Use a push mower. Run the dishwasher after the kitchen has been evacuated for the night.
Protect your hearing. Buy half a dozen spongy earplugs at a drug or safety supply store. Slip each pair into a resealable plastic bag and tape a bag to your vacuum cleaner, your lawn mower, your power saw, where you'll have the earplugs when you need them. You can't hear anything when these machines are running anyway, so you might as well protect your hearing.
Protect your children's hearing, too. Talk to them about how precious a sense it is and how isolating it is to live without it. Get them earplugs for loud concerts. If they use headphones, train them to keep the volume low. If you can hear sound from someone else's headphones, the volume is too high.
Talk to your school principal about noise, too. Self Help for Hard of Hearing People Inc., or SHHH, has a wonderful program aimed at reducing deafening (literally) noise levels in school cafeterias. For details, write SHHH, 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md. 20814.
The second step is: Wield your power as a consumer. Are your power tools very loud? Call or write the manufacturer and register your protest. Are you buying a new appliance? Do a comparative noise test first, and let the retailer know that quietness is an important criterion for you.
The third step is: Make noise about noise.
Do you live near an airport? Get involved in noise abatement programs. Do heavy trucks travel your road day and night? Organize your neighborhood to get the traffic regulated.
It is not unreasonable -- or unsporting -- to insist that standards of quiet be maintained, especially if you always approach problems with a constructive attitude.
And don't leave it to the experts. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Noise Abatement and Control had a staff of 120 and a budget of $10 million. But the Reagan Administration didn't think much of noise.
Today, the EPA has no noise abatement budget and one staff person who works on noise issues -- part time.
Keeping things quiet is now up to us.
Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.