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THE HUMAN CONDITION / NOISE POLLUTION : The Fury and the Sound

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emperor Julius Caesar reportedly tried to halt chariot racing over Rome’s cobblestones because of the ear-shattering clatter it caused.

The 19th-Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer denounced “the truly infernal cracking of whips in the narrow resounding streets” as “the most . . . disgraceful of all noises.”

And when asked what he would like the orchestra to play while he was dining at a posh London restaurant, playwright George Bernard Shaw caustically replied: “Dominoes.”

Over the ages, noise--or that “stench in the ear,” as satirist Ambrose Bierce referred to it--has aggravated individuals and societies great and small.

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Noise has been blamed not just for deafness, but also for emotional stress and high blood pressure, memory impairment and poor digestion. It is used in laboratory experiments to provoke frustration and in battle to terrify the enemy (the trumpets of Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho). In extreme cases, noise has incited modern urban warriors to violence, even murder. (The Los Angeles Police Department reports two fatal shootings in the last eight years over complaints about a neighbor’s stereo.)

With warm weather, the season of acoustical assaults blares, screeches and varooms nationwide toward the crescendo of Labor Day weekend. Windows are thrown open to the neighbors’ heavy-metal symphonies, their swelling TV sitcoms, their ear-rending barbecues, their howling canines. The “boom cars” are out blasting the beaches, while Jet Skis are whooshing their way across lakes and rivers with the auditory delicacy of dive bombers.

Even without the recreational barrage, 60 million Americans are exposed to an average daily diet of noise surpassing 55 decibels (dB), the maximum judged healthy by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to experts, noise control in the nation is indeed in the doldrums.

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“It’s a hidden kind of pollution,” Sidney Shapiro, a noise control advocate and administrative law professor at the University of Kansas, says of unwanted sound. “There are no bodies. It’s not cancer. The effects are low-level.”

For noise victims, however, the suffering can be sufficient to alter their lives and drive them beyond their normally civilized limits. The hapless may hide under their pillows at night (where the speaker of their “environmental noise” machine lulls them with sounds of surf and waterfalls), wear earplugs to reduce thunderous movies to tolerable decibels, take on their Schwarzenegger-sized neighbors--even run away to a quieter spot on the planet.

For the sensitive, the search for calm can become the all-consuming focus of life. In the case of scriptwriter John Maccabee, it evolved into an odyssey of exotic locales.

As a greenhorn, Maccabee, now 45, set out to find the sort of absolute silence he deemed necessary to commune with his timid muses. A New Yorker, he thought he had found nirvana when he came upon an arid Mexican mountaintop. But the one thing the city slicker had not counted on was a full complement of barnyard animals on the property he rented.

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“The commerce of nature” began with cock-a-doodle-dooing at 5 a.m., building incrementally through the morning--the clucking hens, the honking geese, the heehawing burros all joining in. Even the flies buzzing around Maccabee’s desk began to drive him crazy.

“Everything was a distraction,” he says.

Going farther afield, Maccabee next chose an abandoned Colorado mining town, which in midwinter was home to a dozen crusty souls. Renting a log cabin, he pecked out his prose to the swish of snowdrifts--that is, until a blizzard blew in. This time, nature’s paradise came with a small herd of horses, which, deprived of their delivery of hay, began noisily munching on the house.

After one last stop, this one on a hillside in the Berkshires, the prodigal son of urban life returned to the bedlam of mid-town Manhattan--and there went productively, seriously, to work.

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The lesson of the parable: “I had a deadline,” says Maccabee. “I had to learn to deal with the noise.”

The reason some people are more sensitive to sound than others is a mystery to audiologists, who study the science of hearing, and to psychologists.

“We don’t know who is who,” says John House, director of Los Angeles’ House Ear Institute and Clinic, while UCLA stress expert David Shapiro declares: “Noise is in the ear of the listener.”

At one end of the scale, phonophobics--who dislike, even fear, noise--may flinch at the 10-decibel flutter of a leaf in the breeze; at the other, a generation of rock fans blissfully throbs to concerts that can reach 130 dB, the noise level of a jackhammer or a jet plane at takeoff.

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Conversational speech takes place at about 60 dB. Sustained noise at 85 dB begins to damage the hearing.

Physiological effects notwithstanding, the racket of American cities is undeniable to the average ear. More than a hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde harrumphed: “America is the noisiest country that ever existed.”

Noise experts lament the lack of federally enforced noise regulations (although some laws are on the books) for such ear-splitters as railroad yards, garbage trucks, motorcycles and lawn mowers, while in European cities such as Paris, horn-honking is forbidden and sirens sound as innocent as baby toys.

After a heyday in the 1970s as a chic environmental cause, noise pollution has been all but ignored, experts complain. The EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement, mandated to regulate sources of environmental noise, was closed in 1982, and municipal noise reduction programs have dwindled from several hundred to between 50 and 75, they say.

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“The tables have turned,” says Shapiro, who co-authored a report issued this month that advocates reinstatement of the EPA’s program.

Nevertheless, some noise-stressed Americans have taken up the battle cry against their cities. Last winter, a dozen Manhattan block associations banded together to fight the ear-piercing sound produced by Cityspire, a skyscraper dubbed “the whistling building.”

Rooftop louvers, vibrating on windy days, produce a sound that resident Frank Siegfried, a retired violinist, compares to a World War II all-clear siren.

“People have called me crying,” says one block association president, Portia Clark, adding: “You can only drive people so far.”

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After fining the building’s managing agent $220 last spring--a sum that residents snort is “nonsensical"--an administrative law judge declared that the structure must be cited for two more noise violations before the owners could be forced to correct the problem.

Still, Clark promises, “We certainly will not give up.”

Last summer, Redondo Beach residents also went on the warpath, petitioning City Hall to crack down on the “boom cars” that cruised the strand. By the end of the season, police had confiscated 42 concert-style speakers; this year, reports police Lt. Steve Murdoch, who heads the town’s traffic bureau, the problem “hasn’t reared its ugly head.”

In most cases, however, confrontation between victim and noise-maker must be direct, making most people less willing to voice their frustrations.

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Joni Consroe, a model and dance teacher who lives in Marina del Rey, telephoned her landlord for months to complain about her neighbors’ disco-like noise levels. To escape the ruckus, Consroe did business on the telephone in the bathroom and became so unnerved, she says, that she suffered a slipped disc before her tormentors were finally evicted.

There are, of course, city ordinances to protect communities from auditory insults. In Los Angeles, citations can be given for stereos heard 150 feet over a neighbor’s property line and for apartment sound levels raised to exceed the average ambient noise by 5 dB.

However, for the five police officers of the Noise Enforcement Team, which responds to noise complaints, there is a load of 300 cases under investigation. “We chip away and chip away at it,” says Officer Eric Moore.

Not only are urban nerve-janglers numerous, but they can get downright belligerent. Take, for example, an ongoing “town-versus-gown” showdown.

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When residents near Georgetown University complained to students, living up to 10 to a house in the Washington neighborhood of Burleith, the students responded by urinating through one person’s mail slot, dropping a rubber penis through another and chasing one woman home and dumping garbage in her yard.

“A dean in my day would say, ‘Kid, here’s your train ticket home,’ ” says David Conner, a 1960s graduate from the University of Virginia who heads the Burleith neighborhood association. “Today, the dean would get a call from a lawyer.”

According to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Moore, the people most likely to complain about noise are artists, the elderly and the wealthy (“If you’re paying a million dollars, you have a right to heaven on Earth”).

But some people, such as Cynthia Woll, a 38-year-old Los Angeles record executive, can’t even bear the sound of someone chewing gum. When she goes to a business meeting or dinner party, Woll admits, “I’ll look around to see who looks noisy.”

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Woll has gone so far as to knock on a neighbor’s door to ask him to turn over--she could hear him snoring. And she has thrown pebbles at the mockingbirds in her yard; their songs were keeping her awake at night.

“I don’t understand why other people don’t hear these things,” she says.

Woll’s opposite, 33-year-old Mary Mihalakos, is just as frustrated by the finicky folk who are always telling her to “shush.” Mihalakos revels in family gatherings where 40 mouths are going at once, seeks out high-decibel restaurants, and would just as soon scream down the hall at her corporate law partners as pick up the telephone.

“Noise is festive,” Mihalakos declares. “It always means something’s happening. There’s a parade--something’s happening. An ambulance--something’s happening. A woman screaming in the street--something’s happening. I don’t want to miss out on anything.”

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