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The Sound of Quiet

Shhh… Listen. Do you hear that? You don’t hear anything? That is what I’m talking about. Actually, it is rarely totally silent, so really, I love what I call the sound of quiet. I love to be on the beach early, before many people arrive or even in the evening, when all you hear is the sounds of the waves coming to the shore. I love being on a hike with no one around and hearing the rustle of the wind through the trees, an occasional scampering of a creature that makes its home nearby, or the flapping of wings overhead.

Alameda Post - quiet beach
A quiet day at the beach. Photo Liz Barrett.

So you might be thinking that what I enjoy are actually the sounds of nature. That’s true, but I also am content to be sitting in my kitchen with a hot beverage and hearing the quiet purr of the fridge or even the whisper of the dishwasher as it washes away the remnants of a meal enjoyed by my family. Those are just some of the sounds of quiet that I enjoy.

Recent increase of Alameda noise

Recently, life in Alameda has been unusually noisy. A favorite event filled the skies above the bay as the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, put on their shows for Fleet Week. The pilots executed awe-inspiring skill and precision. The roar of the jets could not only be heard, but also felt. We were less enamored when, across the bay in San Francisco one evening, there was a music festival that had the sound amped so high that our local police department was deluged with complaints.



Of course, as is the sign of our times, social media was abuzz as well. Another evening, a series of seemingly random booms lit up local chats. There was speculation that it was thunder from an unexpected storm. I also read comments expressing lots of anxiety that these were explosions of unknown sources. Turns out they actually were explosions, but of a harmless variety—a film crew was setting off fireworks on Treasure Island.

Daily life can also get noisy. As I was preparing to teach an outdoor class, one of my students arrived early and we greeted each other and smiled, then VROOM! VROOM! The sounds of a leaf blower wiped the warm smile from her face and we both had to raise the level of our voices just to speak to each other. We expressed that we wished the blower hadn’t disrupted the quiet.

Ill effects from noise exposure

More than just being annoying, exposure to loud noise can cause hearing loss. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to affecting your quality of life by threatening your hearing, noise can affect your health in other ways. A 2019 study in the journal Environmental Research found that daily noise exposure may significantly increase your risk of severe stroke. Living in a noisy area of a city could increase that risk by 30 percent, while being in a quieter area with greenspace could reduce that risk up to 25 percent.

Here’s how it works: An incessantly loud environment stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates stress response. The brain reacts by increasing blood pressure and levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol; both are known to cause a host of cardiovascular issues, including stroke, says Douglas M. Hildrew, M.D., medical director of the Yale Hearing and Balance Program. In fact, the American Heart Association warns of an increased risk of heart attack for those who are regularly exposed to excessive noise, the kind found near airports and highways. (“Loud Noise: The Not-So-Silent Killer Is Back”, Kimberly Rae Miller, AARP, July 8, 2021)

So, when is loud too loud?

It is generally believed that damage to hearing can happen at about 90 decibels. How can you know how loud that is? Well, just like most things nowadays, there is an app for that. But to give you an idea without having to watch an app everywhere you go, take a look at this chart:

Noise Sources and Their Effects
Noise SourceDecibel LevelComment
Jet take-off (at 25 meters).150Eardrum rupture.
Aircraft carrier deck.140
Military jet aircraft take-off from aircraft carrier with afterburner at 50 ft (130 dB).130
Thunderclap, chain saw. Oxygen torch (121 dB).120Painful. 32 times as loud as 70 dB.
Steel mill, auto horn at 1 meter. Turbo-fan aircraft at takeoff power at 200 ft (118 dB). Riveting machine (110 dB); live rock music (108 – 114 dB).110Average human pain threshold. 16 times as loud as 70 dB.
Jet take-off (at 305 meters), use of outboard motor, power lawn mower, motorcycle, farm tractor, jackhammer, garbage truck. Boeing 707 or DC-8 aircraft at one nautical mile (6,080 ft) before landing (106 dB): jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB): Bell J-2A helicopter at 100 ft (100 dB).100Eight times as loud as 70 dB. Serious damage possible in eight hour exposure.
Boeing 737 or DC-9 aircraft at one nautical mile (6,080 ft.) before landing (97 dB); power mower (96dB); motorcycle at 25 ft. (90 dB); Newspaper press (97 dB)90Four times as loud as 80 dB. Likely damage in eight hour exposure.
Garbage disposal, dishwasher, average factory, freight train (at 15 meters). Car wash at 20 ft (89 dB); propeller plane flyover at 1000 ft (88 dB); diesel truck 40 mph at 50 ft (84 dB); diesel train at 45 mph at 100 ft (83 dB); Food blender (88 dB); milling machine (85 dB); garbage disposal (80 dB).80Two times as loud as 70 dB Possible damage in eight hour exposure.
Passenger car at 65 mph at 25 ft (77 dB); freeway at 50 ft from pavement edge 10 a.m. (76 dB); Living room music (76 dB); radio or TV-audio, vacuum cleaner (70 dB).70Arbitrary base of comparison. Upper 70s are annoyingly loud to some people.
Conversation in restaurant. office, background music. Air conditioning unit at 100 ft.60Half as loud as 70 dB, Fairly quiet.
Quiet suburb, conversation at home. Large electrical transformers at 100 ft.50One-fourth as loud as 70 dB.
Library, bird calls (44 dB); lowest limit of urban ambient sound.40One-eighth as loud as 70 dB.
Quiet rural area.30One-sixteenth as loud as 70 dB. Very quiet.
Whisper, rustling leaves.20
Breathing.10Barely audible.
Modified from http://www.wenet.net/-hob/dblevels.html on 2/2000. SOURCES: Temple University Department of Civil/Environmental Engineering, and Federal Agency Review of Selected Airport Noise Analysis Issues, Federal Interagency Committee on Noise (August, 1992). Source of the information is attributed to Outdoor Noise and the Metropolitan Environment, M.C. Branch et al., Department of City Planning, City of Los Angeles, 1970.

Protect your ears

Alameda Post - earplugsWhat to do now, especially if you are in a situation where noise is unavoidable? You can keep earplugs at the ready. There are different types which vary in how much noise is blocked. They are very inexpensive and can even be carried in your pocket, so if you find yourself in a noisy situation, you have them handy. Another option is noise-canceling headphones. Just be sure to keep whatever you are listening to at a lower volume, so you avoid causing damage to your hearing. Also, while using them, please be aware of your surroundings. Another gem of technology, as mentioned before, is an app you can load to your smartphone to measure the sound level wherever you are and limit your time or simply avoid being in noisy places.

I know that is often easier said than done, but I hope today you can take time to seek out a serene spot and enjoy the sound of quiet.

Contributing writer Denise Lum is a Health and Fitness Coach raising her family in Alameda. Contact her via [email protected] or FitnessByDsign.com. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Denise-Lum/.

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