An audiologist explains why it's so much more than a mere annoyance.
Using some new 311 data on noise complaints, DNAInfo has identified the New York City building that's home to the loudest lovemaking. Congratulations, 7201 Ridge Boulevard, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: You have made some of your residents very proud and others very, very angry. All told, New Yorkers registered 133 official complaints about noisy sex in the first six weeks of 2015. Here's the text of one complaint, logged at 6:24 in the morning:
“My next door neighbors are having loud and vulgar sex since 11:30 pm!” he wrote. “This happens on a nightly basis. The noise is unbearable and keeps us awake at night. Also they turn on the music extremely loud but you can still hear them screaming outside!!!”
Unbearably loud sex in an adjacent apartment is just one of the many ways New Yorkers lose sleep to noise. Writing in the New Yorker earlier this year, Ben Wellington listed the top five official city complaint types to be loud music or parties, construction, loud talking, car music, and barking dogs. New York's official 311 service page also lists "House of Worship" as a subset of its noise complaints. And let's not forget all those irritating upstairs neighbors.
As frivolous as noise complaints can seem, lost sleep is not just an annoyance—it's a legitimate health hazard. And sleepless nights aren't the only unhealthy outcome of city sounds, says Craig Kasper, chief audiologist at New York Hearing Doctors. In talks he gives about the impact of urban noise, Kasper points out other areas of concern in addition to sleep disturbance: cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, chronic stress, and hearing problems chief among them.
"Throughout the years it's clear that there's been a lot of emphasis on the noise problem in New York," he tells CityLab. "The real issue is that it seems like not much has been done from a perspective of actually reducing it."
Kasper cites a recent World Health Organization report on noise pollution that concludes it's "not only an environmental nuisance but also a threat to public health." Here's a brief look at the five main areas of noise-related health concern:
- Cardiovascular disease. Existing evidence links environmental noise—in particular, loud traffic—to various cardiovascular effects including high blood pressure, hypertension, and heart disease. Some studies further suggest that nighttime noise has an especially large impact. The general idea is that the arousal response triggered by noisy environments takes a physiological toll over time.
- Cognitive impairment. An alarming amount of evidence connects noise with poor cognitive development in children. One compelling study cited by WHO found a link between noise exposure and deficits in memory and reading comprehension—problems that went away when the exposure ceased. Reducing noise around schools, in particular, is a key focal point for policy.
- Sleep disturbance. Noise can have a number of different effects on sleep: immediate effects (such as awakenings or sleep-stage changes), after-effects (such as issues with daytime work productivity), and long-term effects (such as chronic sleep problems). The WHO reports that environmental noise "may reduce the restorative power of sleep" and that sleep fragmentation can impact, among other things, motor performance and even creativity.
- Annoyance/stress. WHO points out that severe annoyance with noise can be "considered an adverse effect on health" in its own right. It can lead to a host of negative moods and emotions, as well as stress-related symptoms such as fatigue, stomach aches, and … more stress.
- Hearing problems. Specifically, tinnitus—the term for hearing a sound, like a hissing or a ringing, that isn't really there. (WHO also calls it "the inability to perceive silence.") Research has pointed to "excessive exposure to noise" as one potential cause of tinnitus; up to 90 percent of patients with "chronic noise trauma" report suffering from it.
What's interesting to Kasper is how persistent noise complaints have been among New Yorkers over time—going back to the 1905 Times headline claiming New York to be "the noisiest city on earth." In the 1930s it was Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pushing for "noiseless nights"; in the '60s, says Kasper, the attention was on loud garbage trucks; the Bloomberg administration also made noise reduction a policy focus.
And yet the noise remains. By Kasper's own analysis of 311 data, there's a noise complaint in New York made every four minutes. (His own patients complain of loud restaurants the most.) Part of the problem, he says, is that by the time an official comes to investigate a noisy neighbor or a bar playing music that spills into the street, the racket is often gone. But he also knows that, for all its health impacts, noise adds to the charm of New York—and, really, any big city.
"Noise is part of being in a metropolitan area. It leads to the energy," he says. "I don't want to paint a complete negative portrait of noise."
The tired folks at 7201 Ridge Boulevard might beg to differ.