In my younger and more vulnerable years, a.k.a. the summer of 2014, I made the traditional post-grad move to Manhattan and crashed for two-ish months in my friend’s ramshackle Alphabet City apartment, which was located right above a bar. And by right above I mean right above. My room, scarcely more than a closet, sat directly over what I imagined to be the establishment’s massive speaker system. Come night, the music thumped and the carousers caroused until 2 a.m., often much later on weekends. I’d once lived above a Philadelphia WaWa and thought that would prepare me for the noise; I was wrong. It was no problem for my friend, who had gone and become a Broadway actor while I finished my English degree, and slept well past noon everyday. As I was beholden to a more conventional schedule, I went slowly insane.
An interesting thing about suffering in any capacity is the realization that everyone else does it, usually much more impressively, and that yours hardly matters or even qualifies as suffering at all. While I nightly lay open-eyed in wait of last call, I was one of an estimated 100 million exposed to noise pollution in the United States; that number rockets as high as 247.5 million in Europe, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report. Had I filed a grievance with NYC’s 311 complaint system, mine would have been one of 140 thousand filed between the winters of 2013 and 2014. Of those, 52,368 — 37 percent — dealt with loud music or partying. I had the luxury of being able to flee my ill-muffled apartment to a quiet neighborhood in North Brooklyn, but many victims have noise have no choice but to adapt or suffer its consequences.
The specific definition of noise pollution varies by country and state, but it can be reasonably understood as any level of noise that is disturbing or straight-up painful. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that people avoid exposure to more than 55 decibels in a 24-hour period, while the WHO recommends “less than 30 A-weighted decibels (dB(A)) in bedrooms during the night for a sleep of good quality.” For context, a quiet suburb generally has ambient noise levels of 50 decibels; a noisy city registers around 80 decibels in the daytime; and highway traffic comes in at 70-80 decibels. It takes 120 decibels — a thunderclap or chainsaw — to cause immediate pain. Prolonged exposure to lower levels, however, can be just as harmful — if not more.
A brief catalogue of noise pollutants: Traffic, construction, planes and helicopters, loud music, louder music, air conditioners and ventilation equipment, barking dogs, car horns, truck horns, windmills (maybe!), people talking louder than you would like them to talk. All are everyday phenomena with potentially ruinous consequences. That WHO report lists five primary risks of noise pollution, though each spirals into its own nightmarish web of health concerns: Cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in children, stress, hearing loss and sleep disturbance.
When it comes to sleep, even noise levels as low as 30-40 decibels are sufficient to wake people up, causing particular harm to children, the elderly and the chronically ill. Ramp that up above 55 decibels — an urban center or even a freeway-adjacent suburb — and increased sleep loss can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. And let us not forget the catalogue of other consequences of sleep deprivation, which include the increased risk of diabetes, obesity, depression and stroke — not to mention the professional and social ramifications of daytime sleepiness.
What, then, to do about noise pollution? If you can, get outta there; a full night’s sleep is more important than living beside whatever train goes right to your office. But if you can’t, and odds are you can’t, there are a few ways to dampen the thunder of passing trucks and low-flying planes.
1. Acoustical tiling and double-paned windows reduce environmental noise, though if you don’t own your apartment or house, consider thick drapes and carpeting.
2. Come bedtime, white and pink noise calm the brain, potentially improving sleep quality. You needn’t buy a fancy machine — simply turn on a fan or download an app.
3. If that isn’t enough, consider sleeping with earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Oh, and remember, above all else, the most important step you can take to avoid noise pollution is to never live on Avenue C in Apartment 1A. It’s a goddamn Kafkaesque hell-pit.