As Vancouver’s summer swings into gear, how much noise is too much?
By Paul Luke, The Province July 25, 2015
VANCOUVER— One summer day in the early 1990s, a music festival at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park turned an exasperated resident of the area into a sonic refugee.
Tormented by tunes spilling from the park’s annual folk festival, the Point Grey woman and her daughter retreated to what she thought would be a haven at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver.
But the strains of banjos and guitars floated across Burrard Inlet to their refuge. They may as well have met their acoustic fate in the comfort of their own home.
Hans Schmid, who lives next to the park, tells this true story with humour and sympathy.
“Some people love it, some hate it and some are indifferent,” Schmid says. “I don’t necessarily hate it, and if the noise could be contained in the park, then I would not mind so much. They crank up those amps.”
Summer is the most toxic time of year for noise pollution in the Lower Mainland, says Schmid, the soft-spoken president of the Vancouver-based Right to Quiet Society.
Fairs, motorcycles, boom cars, air conditioners, leaf-blowers, power washers, watercraft, garage bands, revelry from bars, drunken deck parties — the world has amassed a formidable arsenal of summertime strategies for murdering silence, Schmid says.
And each summer’s noise pollution gets a little worse as more people cram themselves and their noise-making toys into an increasingly dense region, says the president of the society.
“Noise is increasing not only in the Lower Mainland but worldwide,” Schmid says. “The main reason for that is the steadily growing human population, combined with continually rising demands for ever more material wealth, conveniences and audio entertainment.”
Sgt. Randy Fincham, spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department, says the rise in complaints the VPD receives each summer about motorcycles and construction partly reflects Vancouver’s tradition of using nature as an air conditioner.
“We open our windows for fresh air,” Fincham says. “If you look at congested areas like downtown corridors, there are buildings where the noise reverberates from the street below.
“That does have a negative effect on our quality of life.”
In B.C., drivers of motorcycles growling louder than 91 decibels can receive a $109 ticket, plus three points.
“Many aftermarket motorcycle mufflers are tested at 112 decibels,” the VPD says.
The Right to Quiet Society, formed in 1982, tries to raise understanding of the health risks posed by Metro Vancouver’s growing wall of noise.
It has been an uphill battle and political leaders pay little attention, says Schmid. Unlike chemical discharges into air or water, noise spills leave no residue.
“Ears don’t bleed and people don’t drop dead,” Schmid says. “Politicians usually cater to what’s most desirable to most people, which far too often means more noise, not less.
“You only have to look at Vancouver’s events calendar to see what’s favourable and check how many of them received an exemption from the provisions in the noise-control bylaw.”
NOISE POSES HEALTH RISKS
Many people would acknowledge that urban noise may put them at risk of hearing damage. But city dwellers are largely unaware of how much physiological harm results from constant exposure to unwanted sound, Schmid says.
“Noise that increases stress can be harmful at levels below those where hearing is damaged,” he says.
Experts on noise in the urban environment share Schmid’s concern about the harm prolonged exposure to noise pollution causes city residents.
Impacts range from annoyance to sleep disruption to lower birth-weight babies for mothers who live in areas of noisy traffic, says Hugh Davies, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of B.C.
“We should be more concerned than we currently are,” Davies says. “In the last 20 or so years, we have come to understand that noise is linked to many adverse affects in addition to hearing loss.”
It’s now widely accepted, for instance, that noise as a stressor is linked to heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, Davies says.
“Noise in the workplace or in the home is thought to … increase our risk for heart attacks, ischemic heart disease and possibly stroke.”
Simply because people don’t notice noises doesn’t mean they aren’t harmed by them.
Sleep studies have shown that although people exposed to noise appear to acclimatize, meaning they’re less likely to wake up, their brain still hears noise such as passing trucks, indicated by heart-rate fluctuations, says Davies.
“It is thought that such direct response to noise might be harmful when people are exposed to noise chronically over long periods of time,” he says.
Davies cites a 2005 survey that found 6.7 per cent of Canadians were highly annoyed by motor-vehicle noise.
A 2011 World Health Organization report says noise-related annoyance can be a serious concern.
“People annoyed by noise may experience a variety of negative responses such as anger, disappointment, withdrawal, helplessness, depression, anxiety, distraction, agitation or exhaustion,” the WHO report says.
OUR ‘NOISE CLIMATE’ IS DETERIORATING
Local health and municipal officials say it’s unclear whether Metro Vancouver is actually becoming noisier.
But Claudia Kurzac, manager of environmental health for Vancouver Coastal Health, says it’s logical to assume that more people living in the region would bring more noise.
The highly personal nature of noise perception makes assessing the overall effect difficult, Kurzac says.
“Noise is subjective,” she says. “What bothers me might not bother you.”
Andreea Toma, chief licence inspector for Vancouver, says it’s now easier to report noise incidents by calling 311 or using the VanConnect app on cellphones.
Vancouver’s roughly 20 property-use inspectors are called on more frequently in summer to respond to complaints and enforce the city’s noise bylaw, Toma says. They are armed with noise meters precise enough to gauge noise levels within three decibels.
Violating Vancouver’s noise bylaw can earn a minimum fine of $250. That can mean a homeowner using a leaf-blower before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. on a weekday, or a live band in a restaurant reading more than 90 decibels for at least three minutes on a sound meter.
There is little doubt that Metro Vancouver’s “noise climate” is deteriorating in some industrial areas and along major roads and highways, says Barry Truax, a Simon Fraser University professor specializing in acoustic communication.
Charming elements of the local soundscape are buried under noise as the area densifies, he says. A century ago, the bells of Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver could be heard as far away as south Vancouver, he says.
“Today, there are buildings all around it and the city is noisier,” he says. “You can only hear the bells for a couple of blocks.”
LISTEN BEFORE YOU BUY
Homebuyers preoccupied with views and access to transportation disregard an area’s soundscape at their peril, says Truax.
“People often ignore an area’s acoustic environment,” he says. “Then they move in and realize they can’t sleep at night.”
On the other hand, certain neighbourhoods such as False Creek enjoy a protected acoustic environment in which noise from the rest of the city is a minimal background presence.
“You can feel your stress level dropping as you walk into the area,” says Truax, adding that parts of Vancouver’s West End located away from main streets are “remarkably quiet.”
Neither Truax nor even the Right To Quiet Society advocates banishing all noise in the city. A neighbourhood’s sounds, if they’re balanced, create an energy that connects people with their environment, Truax says.
Vancouver’s soundscape, in which sounds reflect off the harbour and the North Shore mountains, may plague those trying to flee a music festival. But this sonic bounce can create beautiful effects, depending on the source, says Truax.
“You can often hear sounds from quite a distance,” he says. “You can hear trains and fog horns. I find these sounds quite lovely, reassuring and soothing.”
VANCOUVER’S TOP SUMMER NOISE COMPLAINTS
1. Construction sounds. “The complaints are usually about construction noise outside of working hours,” says Toma, Vancouver’s chief licence inspector. “Or it’s too loud — like a concrete truck backing up.”
2. House parties. “Someone is having a residential party at two in the morning or they’re playing loud music,” Toma says.
3. Complaints from residents about mechanical noises from businesses such as air conditioners and generators.
4. Noise emanating from bars and restaurants. The city is allowing bars and restaurants to extend their patio hours. Applications for extended hours are approved only if there have been no complaints received about a particular operation, Toma says. If a noise complaint is received, an establishment must reduce its patio hours, she says.
5. Waste-hauling noise from garbage trucks. “This is mostly about early-morning pickups downtown,” Toma says.
Vancouver’s Right to Quiet Society says collective solutions are needed to reduce urban noise. But when noise does get out of control, the society and other experts identify coping strategies for individuals.
Society president Hans Schmid urges people to be more considerate by becoming aware of how their noise may unintentionally disturb others.
“Here’s hoping that people don’t hate each other as much as the noise they impose on each other would suggest,” he says.
Government and police should do more to enforce noise regulations, he says.
“Neighbour to neighbour and vanity noise is very poorly regulated and corresponding laws are still less enforced,” Schmid says.
Vanity noise refers to sound sources such as cranked-up car mufflers, music from boom cars and cars honking for non-emergencies.
Better regulation of noise sources also requires more stringent manufacturing standards for all noise-producing equipment, Schmid says.
When noise can’t be reduced at the source, earplugs offer a way to cope, the society says. So do noise-reduction or cancellation headphones that use active noise control to cancel rather than muffle sounds.
Kurzac, Vancouver Coastal Health’s environmental health manager, says porous furnishings such as soft furniture, carpets, curtains and pillows can absorb unwanted sounds spilling from neighbouring condos or apartments.
Davies, an occupational and environmental health professor at UBC, says good sleep hygiene is important. Guidelines in the European Union say that average nighttime noise levels outside a home should not exceed 40 decibels, says Davies.
When all else fails to control troublesome noise, try to see the funny side of the situation, Schmid says.
“I’ve trained my sense of humour,” he says. “Otherwise I couldn’t survive.”
WHO REPORT: LOWER-INCOME PEOPLE MAY SUFFER MORE
Each year, traffic noise steals one million healthy years of life from the residents of Western Europe, according to a landmark report by the World Health Organization.
“Environmental noise should be considered not only as a cause of nuisance but also a concern for public health and environmental health,” the WHO’s European office says in its 2011 study.
Lower-income people unable to move away from noise sources may suffer more from noise exposure than others, according to the WHO.
“Issues such as lower housing prices near noisy roads mean that the effect of noise is not uniformly distributed throughout the population,” the report says.
Children are especially vulnerable to cognitive impairment from noise, according to the WHO.
“Tasks affected are those involving central processing and language, such as reading comprehension, memory and attention,” the report says. “Exposure during critical periods of learning at school could potentially impair development and have a lifelong effect on educational attainment.”
The study also looks at links between traffic noise and heart disease, tinnitus, sleep disturbance and annoyance.
“Studies suggest a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, including high-blood pressure and myocardial infarction, in people chronically exposed to high levels of road or air traffic noise,” the WHO says.
Recent research suggests that people exposed to traffic noise while they’re sleeping have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, the report says. In the short term, traffic noise at night may rob sleep of its restorative power by fragmenting it.
Noise-exposed sleepers are more likely to wake, move and shift between stages of sleep, the WHO says. The after-effects of fragmented sleep range from daytime sleepiness and cognitive impairment to chronic sleep disturbance, the WHO says.
Tinnitus describes a state in which a person hears a whistling, roaring, hissing or ringing without an external source.
“To put it in terms of auditory abilities, tinnitus is the inability to perceive silence,” the WHO says. Fifty to 90 per cent of people with chronic noise trauma suffer from this condition, it says.
The psychological impacts of tinnitus range from anxiety and frustration to an inability to work and reduced ability to take part in social life, the WHO says.
The annoyance caused by noise is more than just passing irritation — it can become an assault on well-being so intense it triggers stress, stomach pain and fatigue, the WHO says.
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