“Very Dynamic Acoustic Environments” – Making Us Sick to the Bone

June 19, 2021

A long but rewarding read

The tech industry is producing a rising din. Our bodies can’t adapt.

Karthic Thallikar first noticed the noise sometime in late 2014, back when he still enjoyed taking walks around his neighborhood.

He’d been living with his wife and two kids in the Brittany Heights subdivision in Chandler, Arizona, for two years by then, in a taupe two-story house that Thallikar had fallen in love with on his first visit. The double-height ceilings made it seem airy and expansive; there was a playground around the corner; and the neighbors were friendly, educated people who worked in auto finance or at Intel or at the local high school.

Thallikar loved that he could stand in the driveway, look out past a hayfield and the desert scrub of Gila River Indian land, and see the jagged pink outlines of the Estrella Mountains. Until recently, the area around Brittany Heights had been mostly farmland, and there remained a patchwork of alfalfa fields alongside open ranges scruffy with mesquite and coyotes.

In the evenings, after work, Thallikar liked to decompress by taking long walks around Brittany Heights, following Musket Way to Carriage Lane to Marlin Drive almost as far as the San Palacio and Clemente Ranch housing developments. It was during one of these strolls that Thallikar first became aware of a low, monotone hum, like a blender whirring somewhere in the distance. It was irritating, but he wrote it off. Someone’s pool pump, probably.

On another walk a few days later, he heard it again. A carpet-cleaning machine? he wondered. A few nights later, there it was again. It sounded a bit like warped music from some far-off party, but there was no thump or rhythm to the sound. Just one single, persistent note: EHHNNNNNNNN. Evening after evening, he realized, the sound was there—every night, on every street. The whine became a constant, annoying soundtrack to his walks.

And then it spread. In early 2015, Thallikar discovered that the hum had followed him home. This being Arizona, Thallikar and his neighbors rewarded themselves for surviving the punishing summers by spending mild winter evenings outside: grilling, reading, napping around plunge pools, dining under the twinkle of string lights. Thallikar had installed a firepit and Adirondack chairs in his backyard. But whenever he went out to cook or read, there was that damn whine—on the weekends, in the afternoon, late into the night. It was aggravating, and he felt mounting anxiety every day it continued. Where was it coming from? Would it stop? Would it get worse? He started spending more time inside.

Then it was in his bedroom. He had just closed his eyes to go to sleep one night when he heard it: EHHNNNNNNNN. He got up to shut the window, but that made no difference at all. “That was when I started getting concerned,” he observed later. He tried sleeping with earplugs. When that didn’t help, he also tied a towel around his head. When that still wasn’t enough, he moved into the guest room, where the hum seemed slightly fainter.

Each night, he’d will himself to sleep, ears plugged and head bandaged, but he could feel the whine in his bones, feel himself getting panicky as it droned on and on and on and on and on. The noise hummed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, like a mosquito buzzing in his ear, only louder and more persistent. He sensed it coming from everywhere at once. Thallikar began to dread going home. As the months passed, he felt like he was in a war zone. He wrote in a text message that he felt as though someone was launching “an acoustic attack” on his home.

The earliest noise complaint in history also concerns a bad night’s sleep. The 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh recounts how one of the gods, unable to sleep through humanity’s racket and presumably a little cranky, opts “to exterminate mankind.”

Noise—or what the professionals call a “very dynamic acoustic environment”—can still provoke people to murderous extremes, especially when the emitter disturbs the receiver at home. After repeated attempts to quiet his raucous neighbor, a Fort Worth, Texas, father of two, perturbed by loud music at 2 a.m., called the police, who came, left, and returned less than an hour later, after the man had allegedly shot his neighbor three times—an incident not to be confused with the time a Houston man interrupted his neighbor’s late-night party and, after a showdown over noise, shot and killed the host. In New York City, a former tour-bus driver fed up with noisy parties across the hall allegedly sought help from a hit man.

A man in Pennsylvania, said to have had no more trouble with the law than a traffic ticket, ambushed an upstairs couple with whom he’d had noise disputes, shooting them and then himself, and leaving behind a sticky note that read, “Can only be provoked so long before exploding.”

There’s the man accused of threatening his noisy neighbors with a gun, the man who shot a middle-school coach after they quarreled over noise, the man who fired on a mother and daughter after griping about sounds from their apartment, the man who killed his roommate after a futile request that he “quiet down,” and the woman who shot at a neighbor after being asked to turn down her music—all since the beginning of this year.

Noise is never just about sound; it is inseparable from issues of power and powerlessness. It is a violation we can’t control and to which, because of our anatomy, we cannot close ourselves off. “We have all thought of killing our neighbors at some point,” a soft-spoken scientist researching noise abatement told me.

As environmental hazards go, noise gets low billing. There is no Michael Pollan of sound; limiting your noise intake has none of the cachet of going paleo or doing a cleanse. When The New Yorker recently proposed noise pollution as the next public-health crisis, the internet scoffed.

“Pollution pollution is the next big (and current) public health crisis,” chided one commenter. Noise is treated less as a health risk than an aesthetic nuisance—a cause for people who, in between rounds of golf and art openings, fuss over the leaf blowers outside their vacation homes. Complaining about noise elicits eye rolls. Nothing will get you labeled a crank faster.

Scientists have known for decades that noise—even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic—is bad for us. “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said in 1978. In the years since, numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise “must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”

Say you’re trying to fall asleep. You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: Your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure and heart rate are rising, your digestion is slowing down. Your brain continues to process sounds while you snooze, and your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels—slightly louder than a purring cat.

“Quiet places have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species.”

Experts say your body does not adapt to noise. Large-scale studies show that if the din keeps up—over days, months, years—noise exposure increases your risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and heart attacks, as well as strokes, diabetes, dementia, and depression.

Children suffer not only physically—18 months after a new airport opened in Munich, the blood pressure and stress-hormone levels of neighboring children soared—but also behaviorally and cognitively. A landmark study published in 1975 found that the reading scores of sixth graders whose classroom faced a clattering subway track lagged nearly a year behind those of students in quieter classrooms—a difference that disappeared once soundproofing materials were installed. Noise might also make us mean: A 1969 study suggested that test subjects exposed to noise, even the gentle fuzz of white noise, become more aggressive and more eager to zap fellow subjects with electric shocks.

In the extreme, sound becomes a weapon. Since at least the 1960s, scientists have investigated sound’s potential to subdue hostage-takers, protesters, and enemy troops, against whom one expert proposed using low-frequency sound, because it apparently induces “disorientation, vomiting fits, bowel spasms, uncontrollable defecation

.” The U.S. military, keenly aware of noise’s power to confuse and annoy, has wielded soundtracks as punishment: It tried to hurry along the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s surrender by blasting his hideout with rock music (Kiss and Rick Astley made the playlist); attacked Fallujah, Iraq, while pounding heavy metal on the battlefield (Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC); tortured Guantánamo detainees with a nonstop barrage of rap and theme songs (Eminem, the Meow Mix jingle); and, under the supervision of the FBI, attempted to aggravate the Branch Davidian cult of Waco, Texas, into surrender with a constant loop of Christmas carols, Nancy Sinatra, Tibetan chants, and dying rabbits. (“If they go Barry Manilow,” said a hostage negotiator at the time, “it’s excessive force.”)

Even when not intentionally deployed for harm, the sound of drilling, barking, building, crying, singing, clomping, dancing, piano practicing, lawn mowing, and generator running becomes, to those exposed, a source of severe anguish that is entirely at odds with our cavalier attitude toward noise. “It feels like it’s eating at your body,” a man plagued by a rattling boiler told a reporter. A woman who was being accosted on all sides by incessant honking told me, “The noise had literally pushed me to a level of feeling suicidal.”

For those grappling with it, noise is “chaos,” “torture,” “unbearable,” “nauseating,” “depressing and nerve-racking,” “absolute hell,” and “an ice pick to the brain.” “If you didn’t know they were talking about noise, you might think they were describing some sort of assault,” Erica Walker, an environmental-health researcher at Boston University, has said. This has spurred scientists, physicians, activists, public officials, and, albeit less in the United States, lawmakers to join in the quest for quiet, which is far more elusive than it may seem. “Quiet places,” says the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, “have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species.”

Thallikar went hunting for the source of the sound. At first he canvassed the neighborhood by foot, setting out around 10 or 11 o’clock at night, once the thrum of traffic had quieted down. When these “noise patrols,” as he called them, yielded no answers, he expanded his perimeter—by bike, then by car.

He’d pull over every few blocks to listen for the whine. The hum was everywhere: outside Building E of the Tri-City Baptist Church and the apartments in San Palacio; near the Extra Space Storage and the no perfect people allowed sign at Hope Covenant Church; ricocheting around the homes in Canopy Lane, Clemente Ranch, Stonefield, the Reserve at Stonefield. He’d go out multiple nights a week, for 10 minutes to an hour, taking notes on where the noise was loudest. The patrols dragged on—one week, two weeks, eight weeks—which led to spats with his wife, who wanted to know why he kept leaving the house so late at night.

Finally, as winter warmed into spring, Thallikar thought he’d identified the source of the whine: a gray, nearly windowless building about half a mile from his house. The two-story structure, which had the charm of a prison and the architectural panache of a shoebox, was clad in concrete and surrounded by chain-link and black-metal fences, plus a cinder-block wall. It belonged to a company called CyrusOne.

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