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Sunday, 15 June 2014

A writer’s research - Noises off

Photos - Wikipedia commons

Spain has the dubious distinction of being the second loudest country in the world, second to Japan. This prompted me to write a story about it. The result was ‘Big Noise’, a Leon Cazador tale which addresses this serious issue but also injects humour, usually at the expense of the noisy miscreant: here’s the beginning…

“You’ve come to the right person, Mr. Santos!” Darren Atkins said, speaking louder than was necessary in the tapas bar that overlooked the Plaza Mayor. “My product is the best on Spain’s south coast, take my word for it! I’m the big noise around here!”

Every sentence tended to end with an exclamation. This self-styled important person was big in other respects as well. Even when I use my real name, Leon Cazador, rather than my undercover alias of Carlos Santos, I stand six feet high in my open-toed sandals; yet Atkins was a couple of inches taller than me. His Hawaiian-style short-sleeved shirt bulged due to his big muscles and shoulders. Because he had shaved his head, his big ears appeared more prominent and tended to press forward like little radar. I wondered if that feature prompted him to go into the acoustics business.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” I said, nodding. “I only want to use the best equipment.”

“Too right! Sure, in the UK, I was just a little fish in a big pond, but out here, I’m a big fish in a little pond! Know what I mean?” At least his questions ended on a lower note.

“I think you mean that you can produce the right sound, no?”

“Too right, Mr. Santos. Or should I call you Carlos, eh?”

“Carlos is okay. As I told you on the telephone, I want a good sound system, the best I can afford.”

“You’ve come to the right man and the right company!” He ran a big hand over his cranium’s stubble. “As the name says, Big Noise is big.”

I stroked my false moustache as if in thought. “That is what I want. But it must be within the right parameters, according to the safe recommendations, no?”

“Hey, you don’t want to take any notice of all that so-called safety stuff. Statistics! In the history of the world, what did statisticians ever do, eh, I ask you?” He shook his head. “My equipment will knock your punters’ socks off!”

I glanced at my feet. “Even if they only wear sandals?”

Atkins chuckled good-humouredly. “A sense of humor! I like that in a foreigner! The French, they’re a bit too serious for my liking!”

“Thank you, I think.”

“Right, then,” he said, rubbing his big hands together, “let’s talk specifications, shall we?” From his jeans’ back pocket he pulled out a pen and a small spiral-bound writing pad. “Big question is, how much noise do you want to make?”

– from Spanish Eye (see below)

The research

Much of the information here was obtained from Wikipedia. This is a table of decibels raised by certain machines and other sources:
140 dB          Fireworks/Plane taking off/Pain threshold
120 dB          Fire engine
100 dB          Pneumatic drill
90 dB            Disco
85 dB            Levels above this may harm our hearing
70 dB            Vacuum Cleaner
50 dB            Boiling Kettle/Rainfall
40 dB            Refrigerator
30 dB            Bedroom at night (depends on what’s happening, who’s snoring etc?)
10 dB            Breathing
Loud noise can cause hearing problems, but it can also cause annoyance, which leads to stress.  Noise interferes with concentration and learning ability, it disrupts the sleep pattern, and it has even been used as a weapon in military or siege situations.  The notion that we become used to noise is debatable; those habitually in a noisy environment may be in denial; one good aspect of health and safety has been the insistence on ear-defenders when using equipment such as pneumatic drills.

Traffic noise accounts for 66% of the total noise generated outside dwellings in the UK, with 32 million people being exposed to high levels of noise (55 - 75 decibels); so, judging by the above table, it’s safe – if not endured for long periods, I suspect. Traffic noise is caused by engine noise and the vibration of tyres on the road surface; at speeds of over 40mph vibration from tyres on the road surface is dominant. Research suggests that noise-reducing modern asphalts are the most effective way to reduce traffic noise at source. The material is laid in such a way as to achieve a very even running surface which reduces tyre vibration. Conventional types of road surface use projecting aggregate (crushed stone) to provide skid resistance, which cause tyre vibration. Modern asphalts have a 'negative texture' with skid resistance provided by gaps in what is otherwise an even surface resulting in minimum tyre vibration and a dramatic reduction in traffic noise. Lower speeds can bring about a reduction in noise levels. Research from the Conservation Law Foundation, based in Boston, Massachusetts, showed that a 12-15mph increase in speed results in noise levels rising by 4-5 decibels. This doesn't apply when speeds are lower than 35-40mph when most of the noise is created by the engine. However, a car travelling at 31mph makes one-tenth as much noise as one going at 56mph. The noise from vehicles moving at speed is particularly noticeable in rural areas. Traffic calming has become common in urban areas. It is usually done for safety reasons. Yet it can increase noise levels if it results in more 'stop/go' vehicle movements. Traffic volumes continue to rise, particularly in rural areas, despite government efforts to encourage local authorities to stabilise or reduce traffic in their areas – government now requires local authorities to reduce traffic on their local roads, but, so far, has shied away from national traffic reduction policies.
Hearing Impairment. For most adults, a one-off noise has to be very loud to damage their hearing.  Probably it has to reach 140 decibels. For children, it is lower – around 120 decibels. (Toys may exceed that level when children hold them very close to their faces and ears). Noise levels of anything over 75 decibels can damage a person’s hearing if exposed to it regularly over a prolonged period. This has implications for large sections of the population:

Rock concerts: 100-120 decibels
Night Clubs: 95-110 decibels
Personal Stereos: 80-110 decibels
Jet taking off: 110-115 decibels
Car at 50km/h: 60-80 decibels
HGV at 50km/h: 75-100 decibels
I would add film directors – TV and the movies – who clearly have impaired hearing and force the audience to listen to foreground music that obliterates the dialogue of the actors.

When exposed to prolonged noise on a regular basis, hearing impairment is gradual.  Dulled hearing or tinnitus (ringing in the ears) are often the first signs of something going wrong. After a rock concert 63-73% of young people report dulled hearing and/or tinnitus.  After a visit to a night club 47-66% do so. After listening to their personal stereo, it is 17% (3).
Sleep Disturbance. The WHO calculates that if people’s sleep is not to be affected, then continuous noise heard indoors shouldn’t exceed 30 decibels. There are two important exceptions to this: low-frequency noise which is not 'loud', but which takes the form of a low hum (an air-conditioning system, for example); and environments where there is a combination of noise and vibration – eg heavy lorries of trains. To achieve 45 decibels indoors, outdoor sound levels should not exceed 55-60 decibels.  Night flights exceed this limit over 10 miles from the airport.
Not everybody is woken by noisy events.  Older people, and noise sensitive people, are more likely to be affected; children are less likely to be woken up, but show a larger heart rate response during sleep; some people can adapt to noise at night. And of course there are shift workers who sleep during the day, even with all the noise that abounds then; their bodies seem to cope; or do they? Even if people are not woken by noise, there is considerable evidence that the body is being affected.  It can cause increases in the heart-rate and blood pressure levels; alter the depth and quality of the sleep; and cause changes in respiratory movements.
Acute noise can lead to temporary changes in blood pressure and heart rate. After prolonged exposure, susceptible individuals may develop permanent problems such as hypertension and heart rate associated with high blood pressure levels. There is evidence that these effects can be experienced with constant exposure to noise levels from 65-70 decibels upwards. Similar physical effects can take place as a result of exposure to low-frequency noise.
Annoyance is a big issue. Noise can be so annoying that it blights the quality of life of millions of people. Fine, somebody likes a certain kind of music, but they shouldn’t foist it upon their neighbours: this is the ‘ghetto blaster mentality’. There’s a debate over what constitutes "the onset of community annoyance" – 50, 55 or 57 decibels.  Interestingly, ‘over 600,000 people experience noise of 54 decibels or more from aircraft using Heathrow Airport.’ Annoyance from noise can lead to anger, disappointment, dissatisfaction, withdrawal, helplessness, depression, anxiety, distraction, agitation or exhaustion; and of course there have been murders as a result, notably in the US.

Leon Cazador makes an aside further into the story:
'And yet, there are laws about noise levels, even in Spain. Of course, respect for authority is pretty far down the list for the majority of Spaniards. Many well remember those years under the dictator, when the walls had ears. Perhaps that was why people shouted—just to prove they weren’t whispering and didn’t have something to hide. Now, of course, I wonder if it’s because they were deafened at a young age with all those marvellous fiestas.'
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback for £4.99 ($6.99) and much less for the e-book versions.
Paperback - Amazon UK here
Paperback - Amazon COM here



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