The data suggests that the world is getting noisier and experts are concerned: this is what we know.
This summer, the Bilbao City Council launched a curious initiative: it installed eight sound level meters on Calle Ledesma to monitor the noise in this area of terraces, bars and taverns. He had already done it on other occasions, but here was a novelty, the devices could use a light bulb to warn the chatterboxes that they should lower their tone.
I do not know what the effect of the initiative will have been, but what is certain is that in recent years we have become increasingly aware of the problems that noise can cause us. In May, without going any further, the New Yorker said that noise pollution could be the next public health crisis. All under the assumption that the world is getting louder, but is it true?
The world and the noise
I find it very funny that, as Bianca Bosker recounted, the first noise complaint in history appears in the Gilgamesh's Poem and it is 4,000 years old. In it, one of the gods, tired of not being able to sleep at night because of the noise that men and women generate, decides to exterminate humanity. Fair enough.
It is also said that the first noise restrictions were taken in classical antiquity, specifically in the city of Síbari in Calabria. Foodies, hence the name, prohibited all noisy activity near the core of the city. We do not know if it is true, but the legend shows the importance that environmental pollution has always had in the collective imagination.
I'm not exaggerating. For centuries, hundreds of Christian, Buddhist and Jewish communities, thousands of Muslim marabouts and Hindu holy men have fled secular life to find silence in mountains, deserts or jungles. Noise is thus important. However, we don't know how to measure it very well.
World Hearing Index
We know how to measure it, don't get me wrong. We know, for example, that in the face of popular belief, Spain is not the second noisiest country in the world. We also know that, according to the latest DKV Health and Environment Observatory, 46.5% believe that they live in a very or rather deafening locality. We are talking about 74% of citizens if you look at Madrid.
What I mean is that we don't have big data series on noise in the world. In the United States, which was a pioneer thanks to Nixon's legislation, the last time the Environmental Protection Agency measured the sound of the country was in 1981, when Reagan cut federal funds dedicated to the fight against noise pollution. Therefore, it is not possible to know how it has evolved.
On the other hand, the Division of Natural Sounds and Night Skies of the US National Park Service makes recurrent studies on the acoustics of free time in the country. Their estimates say that noise pollution doubles (even triples) every 30 years. It is a considerable growth, but not representative.
However, there are signs that allow us to intuit that the shots are going there. As Bosker points out, there are indirect measurements that are revealing. In 1912, fire sirens had to sound at 88-96 decibels (measured three meters away). In 1974, they had already risen to 114 and in recent years they are at 123.
A consensus that begins to take shape
The data is North American and, for that reason, we must take it with caution. It is true that, in 1972, the Environment Congress organized by the United Nations recognized noise as a polluting agent and that in many countries of the world the laws have become increasingly stringent. However, evidence indicates that the noise may be growing.
According to a 2017 study by The World Hearing Index, Barcelona is the seventh city in the world with the highest level of noise pollution. Madrid is the sixteenth. That is troubling, of course. In February this year, Bruitparif, an NGO dedicated to monitoring ambient noise levels in Paris, published a report noting that the inhabitants of the noisiest areas of the French capital "lose more than three years of life healthy".
The data and estimates, again, must be taken with caution. We do not have accepted methodologies, nor large ongoing studies. All of our information comes from scattered small studies and partial government analyzes. And yet, the consensus among specialists is that you have to start taking all this seriously. And we will. Because, as William H. Stewart said in 1978, "calling noise a nuisance is like calling smoke an inconvenience."Update: In a previous version, we indicated that "Spain was the second noisiest country in the world". It has been corrected because as César Asensio of the Research Group in Instrumentation and Applied Acoustics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid has indicated, this information, repeated over the years, is rather an urban myth.
Image | Zoltan Fekeshazi