Canary in a coal mine? Noise is a warning.

Photo credit: Arcadiuš licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

You likely know about sentinel species from biology class. In the mining industry until recently, miners carried caged canaries down into mine shafts with them—not as pets but as sentinels. The caged canaries’ highly efficient oxygen-intake provided a reliable early-warning signal to humans if deadly, invisible gases were present. If the canaries panicked or died, humans scrambled to get out of the mine.

Electronic sensors do that job now, but in many other ways we all rely on signals from our surroundings to warn us of danger. One kind of sentinel we should all pay more attention to is environmental noise. Most noise is actually waste, a loud byproduct of filthy, inefficient, poorly maintained industrial processes. Those noisy diesel-fueled jet planes overhead? That’s noise signaling pollution. Gas-powered jackhammers and leaf-blowers ripping up your neighborhood? That noise signals pollution too. Trains and trucks rattling past schools and disrupting kids’ education? That noise signals pollution. Garbage trucks that wake you at 5am with their fumes and noise? They’re signaling pollution.

All of those noises are the canaries in a coal mine. They warn you to watch out because you–and the environment–are at risk.

I’m writing this in February 2020. Our focus at Quiet Communities and The Quiet Coalition has been primarily on the effects of noise on hearing and other aspects of human health. Noise really is “the next big public health crisis.” But this is an election year. So it’s also time for every American to wake up and listen to what environmental noise is telling us. Noise, like other forms of pollution, is harmful for individuals–for you, for birds, for fish. And like those miners’ canaries, noise is also signaling the ongoing pollution of our air and water. That affects every thing.

It’s time to take off our headphones and earbuds and listen while there are still birds singing and we can still hear them. Listen before we’ve all been rendered unable to hear anymore.

TQC’s chair, Dr. Fink wrote an article two years ago about “Another Silent Spring.” I absolutely agree with him that “we can make a quieter world, so future generations won’t have to endure another silent spring.”

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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