public health versus the noise nuisance
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PUBLIC HEALTH VERSUS THE NOISE NT. JISANCE
BY IMOQEN B. O A K L E Y ~
FEW years ago I went to one of the college settlements of Phil- adelphia to speak to an audience of women toilers who had been A gathered from the neighboring tenements. I told them what
the city was doing for them, and what they could do for the city in return, and incidentally I asked them what the3 considered the greatest evil in their crowded tenement life.
What we cannot stand is the noise. It never stops. It is killing us. We work hard all day and need sleep and rest a t night. No one can sleep till mid- night and all the noise begins again a t five. Many of us have husbands who work all night and must get their sleep during the day, but they get no sound sleep with all the noise that goes on about us. You can get away from the noise during the summer, but we cannot. We are right here in the middle of it all our lives. Now, what can your civic club do for us?
I had to tell her we could do nothing. There are no laws against use- less noise in Philadelphia. Complaints can be made, of course, under the general law of nuisance; but to go to a magistrate, make the nec- essary complaints, and attend a series of hearings would take more time and more money than any of those women have at their disposal. Al- though thecivic club could do nothing then to help those tired-outwomen, it began at once an agitation against useless noise.
The first thing I did personally was to make a list of the useless noises which I could hear from my own window, and I found that between 5 a.m. and midnight there was an entirely useless and preventable noise on an average of every five minutes. I sent this list to a widely-read paper, and its publication brought me a shower of letters each one tell- ing of some useless noise that tormented the writer and thanking me for bringing the subject of noise to the attention of the public. The large majority of these letters came from the tenement districts, and taught me two important facts: First, that the people of the slums do not like
1 Mrs. Oakley is chairman of the committee on noise of the American Civic Associa- tion and for many years was chairman of the committee on civil service reform of the Genera1 Federation of Womens Clubs. She has been actively identified with civic movements during the past 25 years, holding at various times prominent positions.
One woman rose and said, I speak for every woman here.
NATIONAL MUNICIPAL REVIEW [April
noise, as popularly supposed; they hate it, and second, the demand thaf useless noise be stilled is not merely to protect those who are ill, but to protect those who are well; to prevent them from becoming ill.
Apologists for noise say that those who differ with them are nervous cranks; that they imagine discomfort when none exists; that they are the idle rich who would not hear the noise if they had something to keep their minds and bodies busy.
They are not the idle rich, they are the toiling poor, they have more than enough to do. Many of them never heard the words nervous invalid, yet they say they are dying of noise. When they claim that constant noise is undermining their health, they are simply in accord with the best medi- cal science. Dust and noise, say our physicians and sanitarians, are two great evils of the day. Dust because it steals into the remotest corners of our homes bearing with it countless miscroscopic enemies, and noise because of its destructive effect upon our nerves.
No arguments are needed to prove the effect of noise upon the auditory nerve. Doctor Clarence Blake of Boston, one of the most eminent of the worlds aurists says: Diseases of the ear are increasing with the increase of noise. If the noise of our cities is to continue, we shall be a deaf race. As the eye requires intervals of darkness so the ear requires intervals of silence to keep it in perfect health.
It is a singular thing that the ear is the only organ of sense that has no legal protection. It insists upon the cleanliness of all articles which the public touches. It does not allow disgusting or indecent signs; billboards are condemned because they offend the eye. It enacts pure food rules and regulations, thereby pro- tecting the health through the sense of taste, but i t leaves the ear the helpless victim of every assaulting sound.
Logically the ear should receive the most protection from the law since it is itself defenseless. We can use deodorizers and disinfectants against foul smells; we can close our eyes to offensive sights, but our ears must remain open to the most offensive sounds. The ear, too, is the shortest avenue to the brain. The editor of the Journal of Pediatrics asked as long ago as 1897, May it not be possible that much of our startling in- crease in insanity is due to the continuous noise of our cities? May not the brain be affected by the ceaseless assaults through the ear? The Boston Medical Surgical Journal in 1890 declared noise to be ( (a nuisance and a danger. The American Journal of Public Hygiene in 1906 claimed that noise is harmful to healthy persons:
First, because it necessitates concentrated attention, thereby increas- ing the liability t o nervous fatigue; and
Second, because it interferes with the necessary amount of sleep. Ordi- nary attention does not produce fatigue; it is a normal action of the
My numerous suffering correspondents disprove the theory.
The law forbids offensive odors.
19151 PUBLIC HEALTH VERSUS NOISE NUISANCE 233
brain, but when concentrated and absorbed attention is required, nervous fatigue is produced in exact proportion t o the amount of concentration. To listen or to think in the midst of noise requires intense concentration, which produces nervous fatigue, and this fatigue produced and repro- duced day after day leads indubitably t o neurasthenia. Almost all sick persons are in a state of pathological fatigue, and loud, disagreeable noises increase this fatigue to the danger point.
The same journal is responsible for the statement that good mental work cannot be done in noisy surroundings. It is quite true that opera- tives in mills and drivers of rattling drays may seem to acquire a consid- erable immunity to noise, but we must remember that these occupations do not involve much thought, and moreover, as yet no one has tried to get at the sufferings which these operatives and drivers doubtless endure.
Habituation to noise may be possible to persons of exceptionally strong nerves and power of concentration, but even though habituation be seem- ingly achieved, the work done under the influence of noise is inferior to that done amid quiet surroundings.
On this same subject of habituation, Professor Sedgwick, of Boston, says that people in crowded cities are in a constant state of nervous fatigue and the fact that many of them do not like the quiet of the country is a proof of their pathological condition.
The noise apologists who insist that noise is not harmful when we become accustomed to it, must be reminded that we can grow so accus- tomed to foul air that fresh air becomes absolutely disagreeable, yet no one would argue from this that foul air is not injurious, or that i t is as good for the lungs as fresh air.
But bad as are the nervous effects of continuous noise, sudden and intermittent noises are infinitely more to be dreaded. Each loud and sudden noise produces a distinct nerve-shock and these shocks often repeated cause a loss in nerve-vitality. Immunity to such noises can never be attained for the sound waves of the air thrown into violent action by a loud sudden noise, strike actual physical blows upon the auditory nerve and a constant succession of such blows inevitably injures and finally destroys the delicate mechanism of the ear. Bells, whistles, gongs, and the startling shrieks of street-vendors are therefore more injurious to the health than the continuous roar of railway trains, or the monotonous whirr of machinery in mills and factories.
The London Lancet declares that street noises are potent factors in undermining the health of city-dwellers, especially brain-workers, making them neurasthenic and unfit for long-continued effort, and i t warns the public that as a national danger the possible Yellow Peril fades into insignificance beside the present and actual Yelling Peril which makes pandemonium of our streets.
234 NATIONAL MUNICIPAL REVIEW [April
Under the heading Police news a London paper reports that a boy was taken in charge for whistling and shouting at night. The magistrate inquired about the neighborhood. Neighborhood of gentry, said the officer. First-class people need first-class sleep, was the decision of the magistrate, and the boy was committed for disturbing the peace. The sentiment is growing that all classes of people need first-class sleep. According to the Philadelphia Medical Journal every physician and every educated person should wage incessant war against unnecessary noises :
First, because it is certain they increase the sick-rate by murdering sleep. Second, because they increase the death-rate by destroying the vital and recuperative powers of the sick. Third, because they dull and brutalize the nervous system of those who have to withstand their patho- genic influence. Fourth, because they serve to make the sensitive and cultured separate themselves in their search for quiet from the masses, thus serving to intensify the license of the noise-makers by lessening the checks upon their crimes.
Dr. Ernest J. Lederle, late health commissioner of New York City, in an address before the international congress of scientists, held in St. Louis in 1903, asserted that ner