At least 100 million Americans are exposed in their daily lives to persistent noise loud enough to cause hearing loss, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Noise also can cause other physical ills.
Since 1981, when the Reagan Administration ordered the termination of the Environmental Protection Agency's noise-abatement program, most programs and progress in noise abatement have ceased. In the meantime, the world gets noisier.
The noise from a jackhammer working on a New York City street has been measured at 105 decibels, equal to the loudness of a jet flyover at 1,000 feet.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations state that any worker exposed to an average of 85 decibels or more over an eight-hour period must be given hearing protection.
"That kind of noise may trigger what we call the fight-or-flight response," said Ruth Samuels, director of audiology at Palm Beach, Fla., Nose and Throat Assn.
"Not only can noise cause hearing loss, but it may increase blood pressure and heart rate."
Other health experts say that loud noises can cause an upset stomach or an ulcer, contribute to premature birth and make sleeping difficult even after the noise has stopped.
Noise pollution also affects wildlife. A Minnesota mink rancher received $37,490 in damages from the Air Force when he proved that 2,000 young mink died because of jet plane noise some years ago.
More recently, noise in the ocean has alarmed scientists as studies have shown that sounds from ships and oil rigs can interfere with behavior, growth and reproduction of marine life.
Noise also can be detrimental to waterfowl. A Fish and Wildlife Service study conducted near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge showed that helicopter flyovers harmed molting brant geese.
The flightless birds wasted energy by running into the water when the noise level reached only 48 decibels.
"Helicopter flights over four national wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast of Texas have destroyed those areas as major waterfowl wintering grounds, particularly for snow geese," reported Doug Gladwyn, a wildlife biologist at the National Ecology Research Center.
Gladwyn is the Fish and Wildlife Service's expert witness on the harm aircraft noise and sonic boom inflict on wildlife.
As for whether noise pollution is playing a role in the decline of songbirds in North America, no one knows because there is little research on the subject.
"There are only 70 articles on the subject of noise pollution in the entire body of wildlife research," Gladwyn said.
Nearly every sportsman over the age of 50, and a great many who are younger, have experienced some hearing loss from shooting without protection against 140-decibel blasts.
"Anyone who is exposed to loud noise should have a hearing evaluation," audiology expert Samuels said. "First see a doctor--preferably an ear, nose and throat specialist--for a hearing test to find out what frequencies are affected.
"Then, if the doctor advises it, a hearing aid may help a great deal. There has been an enormous breakthrough in the technology of hearing aids with the perfection of computer chips. With the use of these new hearing aids, people are not only understanding better, they are suddenly aware they were missing birds singing in their own back yards."