THE OTHER day, after the biker from my neighborhood rattled my windows and nerves for the third time in a week on his Harley, I thought about International Noise Awareness Day.
During this recent event, the sixth annual, sponsored by the League for the Hard of Hearing, people in 43 countries around the world observed a minute of silence. It's a shame that this minute doesn't last longer because the explosive rumbling from my neighbor is symptomatic of an increasingly dangerous problem affecting our environment everywhere.
Noise pollution is flashing across our acoustic radar screen more and more. Part of the reason is life in a high-tech, industrialized world. Part has to do with our peripatetic lifestyles.
Largely considered by noise activists to be the biggest threat to quiet everywhere, aircraft fill our ears 24 hours a day as more people commute greater distances to work and more businesses rely on overnight delivery.
Add to that the cacophony from more cars on the road -- especially boom cars blaring music and Harley motorcycles -- and from such domestic necessities as leaf blowers and air conditioners. It's no wonder that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, every day more than 138 million Americans are exposed to noise levels considered annoying at least, harmful at worst.
The most obvious danger of loud noise is loss of hearing.
According to the League for the Hard of Hearing, 28 million Americans suffer from it. The league's research indicates that permanent hearing loss can occur from surprisingly common and seemingly benign sources: lawnmowers, for instance, which typically range between 85 and 90 decibels in sound level, can cause permanent hearing loss, over time, if preventive steps aren't taken.
Even some of our recreational activities are a threat. Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, says that from a distance of 50 feet, jet skis still assault our ears with sound levels as high as those from lawnmowers.
Like cigarette smoke, we don't have to be the cause of the noise to suffer from it. Research has shown that annoyance from high levels of second-hand noise can affect our digestion, can raise blood pressure, at least temporarily, and can lead to heart disorders.
Exposure to loud noise can also affect our motor and perceptual skills, as well as our concentration, if we have lost sleep because of noise. While this can have obvious implications for adults behind the steering wheel and in the work place, it can also affect the way in which our children learn.
In a groundbreaking study from the mid-1970s, noise experts discovered that children in a New York elementary school whose classrooms were closest to an elevated train track lagged behind in literacy levels -- by as much as a whole school year -- compared with peers in more quiet classrooms nearby.
Fortunately, since then that school and many others near busy highways and airports have begun to pressure state governments into making their classrooms more soundproof. Trying to achieve similar acoustic alchemy, park rangers on the Missouri River and in Maine's Acadia National Park have banned jet skis. By the winter of 2003, snowmobiles could be barred from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
While this need to protect our schools and forests from the debilitating effects of invasive sound has finally caught the ear of legislators, the same thing needs to happen in our communities.
Just as the environmental movement has taught us not to throw trash in our streets, we could benefit greatly by not allowing individuals to litter our shared soundscape with excessive noise that infringes on the rights of many.
Andrew Reiner, a free-lance writer, teaches writing to middle school students at St. James Academy in Monkton.