Peace and tranquility. Given the hectic nature of life these days-with ubiquitous multi-tasking, being tethered 24/7 to your cell phone or blackberry, checking email late at night, etc.-more people seem to be craving an oasis of calm in their lives. With this craving for downtime and reflection comes an expectation of quiet. It’s therefore a sign of our times that the need to reduce unwanted noise in our lives has taken on a degree of urgency that didn’t previously exist.
There is a growing recognition that unwanted noise is a form of pollution that constitutes a threat to public health. Viewing noise as pollution is based in part on research of its health effects. For starters, it’s important to define exactly what noise is: a form of energy. Its contaminants are not the physical particles that you expect from carbon combustion, automobile exhaust, etc., but rather sound waves that interfere with naturally-occurring waves. If these sound waves adversely affect wildlife, human activity, or are capable of damaging physical structures on a regular, repeating basis, this certainly falls under the category of pollution that impacts human and animal health.
So, what are the harmful effects of noise pollution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, numerous health studies have shown a direct link between noise and damaging physiological and psychological health. Noise pollution can cause annoyance and aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss (called Noise Induced Hearing Loss), sleep disturbance, and other harmful effects. Exposure to moderately high levels of noise during a single eight-hour period has been shown to cause a statistical rise in blood pressure of five to ten points.¹
Awareness Getting LouderSurveys have provided strong evidence that there’s a growing popular frustration with unwanted noise. According to the environmental noise pollution group NoiseOFF, a 2001 census survey found that in the United States 11.8 million households said street or traffic noise was bothersome, and an additional 4.5 million said it was so bad they wanted to move.
New York City provides another important example of this raised awareness. When the city established a special 311 citizen service hotline under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the number one complaint concerned noise. This finding helped prompt the mayor to issue legislation overhauling the city’s noise code to make it stricter.
Awareness of noise pollution is by no means confined to United States. A 2005 study2 by Spanish researchers found that urban households are willing to pay four Euros per decibel per year for noise reduction. Recently, in Scotland, regulations were recently introduced that require builders to incorporate soundproofing into new buildings.
In recent years new citizen action groups have formed to raise awareness of noise pollution and to urge legislative action. One example is the above-mentioned NoiseOFF, founded in 2004, which provides tool kits for managing noise. The group contends that noise pollution has become much worse in American society since the 1970s, and it urges citizens to encourage elected officials to restore funding to the Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which was created by the EPA to oversee the impact of noise on the general public, but which has lost much of its funding.
Home Sweet Quiet HomeDespite some progress and action at local levels to control noise, the truth is that noise laws and ordinances vary widely among municipalities, and in some cities they don’t even exist. For now, residents need to rely on what local protections are available, or rely on their own devices.
If you are a homeowner, you can be proactive in reducing unwanted noise. Experiment with furnishings and carpeting, all of which can absorb and reduce noise. There are also new building materials available that can take soundproofing to a new level for do-it-yourselfers-the most important thing to realize about soundproofing is that an effective strategy requires a combination of tactics.
Below are some practical tips that can help you soundproof your home without breaking the bank.
Tip One: Look Beyond the Ratings
The Sound Transmission Class is the industry standard used to gauge the effectiveness of isolating noise between rooms. Although widely-recognized, the standard, established in 1961, calculates noise transmission in an outdated fashion and fails to provide an accurate gauge of low-frequency noise, such as from home entertainment systems. Where possible, look for noiseproofing products that offer technical data based on real-world applications, as well.
Tip Two: Insulate and Dampen Wherever Possible
Adding insulation to walls is easy and cost-effective, and it will absorb some sound, though it is not useful for low-frequency noise. Take advantage, therefore, of the numerous options available to dampen noise, as well-damping dissipates energy, i.e., vibration (sound) as it travels through a structure. Modern viscoelastic materials, for example, are easy to apply and when constrained between two layers of drywall they dissipate noise by converting the energy of sound vibrations into small amounts of heat and can eliminate a much wider range of sound frequencies, including low bass noise.
And don’t forget your ceilings and floors either. Carpeting will certainly muffle floor noise but it won’t stop floors from squeaking, which happens over time when subflooring and joists on a floor begin to rub together. A joist tape can be employed to eliminate the noise caused by this natural settling and reduces noise from foot traffic.
Tip Three: Watch Your Flank
Always be on the look out for ways to eliminate Flanking Noise-noise that travels by any path other than directly through the wall or ceiling. Sound can flank over, under, or around a wall, via cracks and joins, and can even go through electrical sockets and plumbing. Wherever possible, plug these places using a flexible caulking or a dedicated noiseproofing product like an acoustical sealant.
Soundproofing your home should not longer be considered a luxury upgrade, but rather a step towards improving your quality of life. An entire soundproofing system is possible to achieve, cost-effectively and easily.
References1. S. Rosen and P. Olin, Hearing Loss and Coronary Heart Disease, Archives of Otolaryngology, 82:236 (1965)
2. Jesús Barreiro, Mercedes Sánchez, Montserrat Viladrich-Grau (2005), “How much are people willing to pay for silence? A contingent valuation study,” Applied Economics, 37 (11)