Noise, Health and Capitalism

Noise is the invisible pollution of our time. This article will not dwell on the degree of annoyance it causes — the reader can very well judge this for himself and, in any case, annoyance varies considerably from individual to individual. Nor will it discuss the effect of noise on working efficiency. This problem can be left to our employers. It will, as the title suggests, deal mainly with the effect of noise on health, the reasons for the increase of noise in modern society and the prospects for a reduction of noise in the future.

The Effects of Noise on Health

Noise affects health directly and indirectly. By this is meant that noise can cause direct physical damage to the mechanism of hearing — or it may harm physical and mental health by a kind of chain reaction. An obvious example of the indirect effect is loss of sleep due to noise, the loss of sleep affecting health.

How important are the direct effects of noise? In terms of numbers of people becoming completely deaf, not at present very great. But for those unfortunate enough to be continually exposed to high levels of noise the result can be serious. What is called “occupational deafness” is due to damage of the delicate nerve endings of the inner ear, caused typically by factory noise suffered over an extended period of time. The levels of noise which can cause occupational deafness are not very high. It is estimated that workers are at risk when factory noise rises above 85 decibels. [1] This corresponds to the noise emitted by an average lorry, measured at 25 feet distance.

The effect of occupational deafness is insidious. First, the nerve endings which respond to high frequencies — that is, sounds of high pitch — are affected. The worker is not aware that deterioration has started. Gradually, however, the damage is extended down the frequency scale until he becomes deaf to the important upper speech frequencies. He finds conversation difficult and, later, impossible. He can ultimately become quite deaf.

As far as certain types of factory work are concerned, this hazard has now been met by the wearing of ear-muffs. Nevertheless, it was recently discovered that a quarter of the loom workers in Fife mills were deaf to the point of requiring hearing aids. [2] There are still however many workers, such as lorry drivers, operators of road drills and “pop” groups for whom defence measures are either neglected or are impractical.

But the effect of a generally noisy environment is of concern to us all. It was recently established that the hearing acuity of the natives of an African tribe between the ages of 70 and 79 was better than American males between the ages of 30 and 39. This was attributed to the quieter environment of the African tribesmen. [3]

This view is reinforced by the fact that in urbanized societies the hearing of men deteriorates, with age, much more rapidly than for women. This was at first thought to indicate a physiological difference between the sexes. But for the natives of the African tribe there was no difference between men and women. Evidently, in Western civilisations, the difference between men and women aurally is due to the fact that, on the whole, men are exposed to more noise than women.

Urban noise in many areas has now passed the danger level of 85 decibels due to road traffic, and is much higher near airports. One wonders whether the wearing of hearing aids may not one day be as common as the wearing of spectacles.

The indirect effects of noise on health are far more widespread and may indeed be more serious. Indirect effects are difficult to evaluate. If we take the example of noise causing loss of sleep, it is evident that ill-health among people living in noisy environments can be due not only to loss of sleep but also to poverty and poor diet, insecurity and mental strain, and many other factors associated with income groups which cannot afford quieter surroundings — or double glazing.

But the fact that the indirect effects of noise cannot be isolated and measured does not mean that they are any less serious. We know that loss of sleep — or depth of sleep — affects physical and mental health. We know that the frustrations to mental work caused by noise can result in nervous and digestive disorders. We know the need for the solace of a quiet garden after a hard day’s work.

The Reasons for the Increase of Noise

Why then is noise increasing in modern society? The immediate cause is obviously the increasing use of machinery in the factory, in the home, on building sites, for road works — and for transport.

When a machine produces noise there is a small wastage of energy in the form of sonic vibrations, that is, sound. Unfortunately this wastage is extremely small compared with the kinetic, or work-energy developed by the machine. There is therefore no commercial incentive to save this energy by reducing the noise. Unless the purchasers of machinery demand noise reduction, then no manufacturer will readily add to the cost of his machine, in the face of fierce competition, by quietening it — whether it be a lathe or a lorry.

If this is the immediate cause of increasing noise then the more basic cause becomes evident: the factor of cost in the competitive world of capitalism.

There are however subsidiary causes of increased noise, also linked with the economic constraints of capitalism. If one man can drive a large lorry which carries the same bulk of goods as would be carried by two smaller lorries, there will be a saving in wages. Employers as well as Socialists are aware that profits can be increased by a reduction in the wage bill. But the larger lorries require more powerful engines and noise is increased.

In the cut-throat competition between motor-car manufacturers the need to reduce steel has resulted in light metal bodies which amplify noise. Speed is a selling point. To produce a cheap car with low petrol consumption and high speed it is necessary to install “high-revving” engines. High “revs” result in high-pitch noise. The ear is far more sensitive to high frequencies than low. The noise produced is louder.

Similarly in the case of aircraft, importance is attached to a continuing increase of speed. The reader will be familiar with some of the reasons: getting to cheaper and sunnier holiday resorts within the worker’s annual fortnight, getting business executives to their trading destinations before their rivals. It may not be so obvious that a substantial saving in high salaries can be made by reducing the time business men and crews spend in the air. Setting aside the rather immature glorification of speed, its increase can be seen to have more powerful economic motives and the result has been a corresponding increase in noise.

These then are some of the causes of increased noise in modern society. Whether capitalist groups do, in the end, save money and increase profits by the introduction of more powerful machines and faster transport is open to question. Let us consider the numerous office blocks which are being built near main roads in our towns and cities, mostly without double glazing. The loss in efficiency due to noise disturbance for hundreds of thousands of workers is of increasing concern to their employers. Yet traffic noise is allowed to increase year by year. Already, employers are having to instal double glazing and artificial ventilation, the total cost of which may be far greater than the cost of quietening the vehicles which produce the noise.

But capitalists suffer from two handicaps: a need to make immediate profits and an inability to cooperate for their mutual advantage. While car manufacturers are only concerned with the profits of their own industry, they are not likely to consider the needs of those who employ office workers.

How Much is Noise Likely to be Reduced ?

So we have to ask the question: what chance is there, in a capitalist society, of materially reducing noise pollution ? It is evident that, so far, the situation is deteriorating. The Government, three years ago, introduced legislation to reduce the permissible levels of noise emitted by existing road vehicles to a maximum of 92 decibels, for lorries — and 89 decibels for lorries in production. The writer has measured everyday noise levels on some urban main roads at around 87 decibels and the reader will know how loud this is from his own experience. The legislation is obviously ineffective. Add to this the recent decision to allow EEC lorries to exceed the above limits by 3 decibels; take into account the increasing volume of traffic and we. cannot be very optimistic about the future. [4]

The outlook for aircraft noise is no better. In recent years aircraft disturbance has steadily increased — both in noise intensity and number of flights. There is only one large aircraft, the TriStar turbofan jet, which is substantially quieter than its competitors. The Concorde is as noisy as its predecessors. Of twelve types of large aircraft recently monitored all except the TriStar produced about the same level of noise — and these aircraft will be in the air for many years to come. [5] The average life expectancy of such aircraft is said to be 15 years. The only way of materially reducing the noise of existing aircraft over the next 15 years is to fit them with modified engines. This has been estimated to cost about £400,000 per aircraft and is generally considered to be economically impractical. [6]

In a book published after the Government’s rejection of Cublington as a site for a third London airport, it was stated that “it was the considered opinion of the Roskill Commission that the continued use of present-day aircraft and the increased weight of new aircraft like the Jumbo jets would produce a net increase in noise levels up to the 1980’s. Not until 1985.” said the Commission, “could one expect the noise levels of aircraft to drop to the level they were in 1967 and one could not reasonably hope for any real alleviation of the problem before the end of the century”. [7]

The history of noise pollution, like other forms of pollution is typical of capitalist development: the creation of social problems followed by the most feeble attempts to remedy them. It is no use blaming the people caught up in the pressures of capitalist competition. We need an economic and social system from which the profit motive has been removed, in which there is no longer national or international competition, in which progress is measured in terms of human welfare.

That system is Socialism.

References :
[1]  Noise, (The Wilson Report) H.M.S.O. 1963, page 125.
[2]  “The Danger to Health of Excessive Noise” Adam Fergusson, Times March 17th 1970.
[3]  Hearing, Journal of the Royal National Institute for Deaf.
[4]  Times, August 8th. 1974.
[5]  “Aircraft Noise”, Which, August 1974.
[6]  Observer March 12th. 1972.
[7]  Cublington, A Blueprint for Resistance, David Perman, 1973, page 28.

John Moore