Unwanted Noise Is More Than A Nuisance

I am writing in response to the front-page story on noise in The Post-Journal on January 19. Having written or co-authored several op-eds during the past two years about the management of Chautauqua Lake, I see a similarity between lake weeds and noise. If weeds can be defined as “unwanted plants,” then noise can be defined as “unwanted sound.” I hasten to point out that neither of these definitions is found in my 1957 copy of the American College Dictionary.

During the past 45 years I have, on several occasions, had a variety of experiences with unwanted sound. Most of those occasions involved being part of environmental impact studies for proposed gravel mines, while two involved homeowners complaining about noise coming from nearby businesses. In all of those cases it was not the loudness of the sound that was the problem. That is, it was not simply too many decibels, such as the Harley Davidson accelerating away from the stop sign on the corner or the rock band playing for a dance in the school gymnasium. Those two examples involve sounds that are loud – too loud – typically exceeding community noise ordinances and all too often being loud enough and/or sustained enough to damage the intricate and sensitive auditory receptor system of our human ears.

I am neither an audiologist nor an attorney, although I now live across the street from a retired professional audiologist. He prescribed hearing aids for me 20 years ago, attributing my hearing loss to such activities as too many years of hunting without ear protection and having summer jobs with the former Pennsylvania Gas Company and Erie Railroad in the days before OSHA. Shooting guns, running jackhammers and shoveling slag between railroad ties while standing next to a power tamping machine mounted on a railroad car did have its effect on the hair cells of the organ of Corti in both of my ears. I became aware of the damage when I could no longer hear warblers in the spring or cicadas in the fall.

The ear damage that I experienced was caused by various sounds that were too loud. Measured in decibels, which I did not do at the time, I suspect that they approached or exceeded 100 decibels, a noise level that can cause hearing damage after 15 minutes of exposure. To repeat, however, my experiences with sound studies later in life did not involve sounds loud enough to damage ears and cause hearing loss. Instead, those situations involved sound of much lower volume, sounds that are sometimes categorized as “nuisance sound” but can be damaging in their own way.

The gravel mining operations were rural and far enough away from nearby homes that readings with a decibel meter did not support any possible claims of ear damage. That was also true of the noise coming from nearby businesses, which, in one case, emanated from air compressors on the roof of an adjacent supermarket and in the other from the tire changing operation at the former Sam’s Club, now closed. In all of those cases the people affected were long-time residents of their respective areas and had chosen their locations in part because of the quiet nature of the neighborhood. The business sources of the noise came years later and, for those already living there, decreased enjoyment of their way of life in a most significant way.

The circumstances which I have described are different from the referenced article in The Post-Journal, but there are similarities because it is not high decibel ear-damaging sound that is the problem. Despite the words “Too Loud” accompanying the news report, the sound as described will not damage ears but neighborhood peace and quiet has been lost. That is also the case with the wind farms now operating in parts of Chautauqua County.

The wind farms already operating in the county, along with those in various stages of planning, have been in the news often in the recent past, and have also become an important emerging issue during the past two meetings of the County Board of Health, of which I am a member. Although sound is not the only topic that has been included by those addressing the board of health on the subject of wind farms – they also experience light flicker produced by the rotating blades – it is the one of greatest concern. And, as with the other examples I have cited, it is not the loudness of the sound at issue. Rather, it is Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise, abbreviated ILFN, and involves sound of 40 to 45 decibels, well below the levels responsible for ear damage. However, to emphasize again, ear damage is not the issue. Here, as in other states (e.g., Wisconsin and California), ILFN has been shown to cause stress and annoyance leading to sleep deprivation and other problems affecting the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and nerve systems.

In rural areas, such as Arkwright, where the ambient background noise is approximately 25 decibels, the constant noise levels, permissible up to 50 decibels, experienced by some residents close to wind towers has gone beyond being a nuisance and is affecting their health, their well-being, and their quality of life. As the January 19th news article states in the first paragraph, “Quality of life is obviously an issue most Jamestown residents care about, therefore, it’s a matter city officials should care about as well.” With regard to sound, that statement must be expanded to include officials in Chautauqua County and, indeed, all of New York State.

Thomas A. Erlandson is a Frewsburg resident.