It’s time to speak out loudly about noise pollution

Opinion: Being deprived of the right to daydream before being swallowed by work would be a bitter loss


Last month’s news that the Iveragh Peninsula in Co Kerry had received the northern hemisphere’s first dark skies designation was a rare victory in a very low-profile battle: that over light pollution, which is blamed for playing havoc with wildlife, reducing the quality of life and interfering with young lovers’ romantic moments beneath the stars.

But just as Kerry took a step forward, Dublin took one back in a closely related field. If you’ve been on certain Dublin Bus routes recently, you may have noticed that each stop is now announced in English and as Gaeilge, on Luas-style loudspeakers.

Just as the Plough and Orion are tough to spot amid the orange smudge of a light-polluted horizon, so it can be hard to concentrate on the sentence you’re reading, or the thought you’re pondering, when someone is nagging you about the approach of an Chearnóg or the advisability of holding on to the rail when you’re standing in a moving bus.

Noise pollution, like light pollution, is one of the side effects of living in a busy and exciting city. It’s a trade-off: you can’t expect peace and quiet to reign everywhere in a city with a catchment area of more than a million people. And in fairness, announcements are useful for tourists and passengers new to the route, and for those with certain disabilities. But having them bleating away all the time is unnecessary when they could be activated by request.

“Unnecessary” is a significant word, because among the first activists in this field were the members of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. Founded in New York in the early 1900s and counting Mark Twain as a supporter, the society campaigned against – what else? – noisy transport, in particular the incessant horns of tugboats on the Hudson river, which they regarded as debilitating and an oppression of the poor.

They were on to something, because noise pollution is a particularly unhealthy phenomenon. Depression, sleeplessness, heart problems and hearing difficulties can result. And, as with too much light, it torments wildlife. Perhaps it’s at its most invidious when it’s subconscious: computer fan noise, the mood music of many an office, is often not noticed until it suddenly stops.

The World Health Organisation has been active on the issue. A 2011 report calculated that more than a million “disability-adjusted life-years”, or years of healthy life expectancy, are lost in Europe every year because of noise. At night-time, one in five Europeans tries to sleep through sound levels that could damage health.

As well as being unhealthy, noise pollution is also intrusive. Like the creeping invasion of al fresco street furniture, graffiti, the overuse of private security and the harassment of the advertising industry, unwanted noise takes from the public space without permission. So while the recited announcement of a bus or train stop probably won’t give you tinnitus, it might make a book or newspaper unreadable.

Noise intrusion is particularly malign in the retail sector, where music is used to induce shoppers to spend more. This goes against purists’ desire to see music as an art, and partly inspired musician and iconoclast Bill Drummond to instigate No Music Day a few years ago. Tired of his favourite records being turned into muzak, he argued that listening to less of it would make music more special. It was a fun stunt, but the march of hoodie-shop-cum-nightclub Abercrombie and Fitch continues unabated.

For many people – and there were 113 million Dublin Bus journeys in 2012 – commuting is a necessary evil: the fewer interruptions the better. If you’re a regular commuter, you already know where you are and where you’re going. Being deprived of the right to read, think, muse or daydream before you are swallowed up by the demands of the working day would be a bitter loss.

As any solicitor who’s handled a dispute between neighbours over a barking dog knows, noise annoys. The current legislation dates from the early 1990s, with an EU directive implemented in 2006. Last year saw the designation of eight quiet areas in Dublin, mainly parks. A Noise Nuisance Bill has been on its way since Green Party days, but the Government doesn’t know when one might be published – although it’s in the programme for government. Enhanced powers for enforcement agencies and on-the-spot fines are on the cards.

If it does arrive (maybe we’ll wait for ages and three Bills will show up at the same time) it’s probably too much to expect it to police the inside of the capital’s buses. But it would be a shame if it took a piece of bureaucracy to make us realise something we can discover for ourselves: that in a fast-paced world, the freedom to enjoy moments of quiet contemplation will make us happier and healthier.

Ruraidh Conlon O’Reilly is a journalist and musician living in Dublin

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