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Noise and Social Trauma
Some years ago, paediatrician Dr David Bratt remembers, a doctor from the Mt Hope paediatric hospital raised concern about the WASA fete’s effects on newborns in the hospital. The noise could potentially affect their first few hours of life, making them more susceptible to sickness, causing them to gain weight at slower rate than normal, and generally increasing their stress levels.
Unfortunately, said Bratt, no one has ever done any research to confirm or disprove these hypotheses. The lack of research into noise and its effects on social life was another common theme in the stories of all medical professionals interviewed for this article.
There is, however, international research. Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans of Cornell University, examining the non-auditory effects of noise, came to some alarming conclusions.
“Exposure to uncontrollable noise may make children more vulnerable to learned helplessness,” they wrote.
And the effects were not restricted to children. They also concluded that: “Teachers in noisy schools report greater difficulty in motivating children in their schoolwork.” And chronic noise negatively affects children’s reading skills. (The study is available on www.designshare.com.)
Bratt points out the maxi-taxi phenomenon, where students are subjected to noise for at least an hour before and after school, might be objectionable in more ways than the obvious. The noise could affect learning.
“The children come out of the maxi in a hyped-up state, and they go into a school where there is loud background noise.”
This might explain not just the low literacy levels, but the attitude to reading, which requires concentration, and the general air of hostility in some schools.
As to the effects of noise on the mass of the population, UWI psychiatrist, Prof Gerard Hutchinson, said that in addition to the health effects, sustained exposure causes “greater aggression and less coherence.” Hutchinson echoed the concern about the dearth of reliable research on the issue locally.
An article in the British Medical Journal of December 2003, by Stephen Stansfeld and Mark Matheson, confirmed that “noise interferes with complex task performance, modifies social behaviour and causes annoyance.”
After conducting tests in a school environment, Stansfeld and Matheson concluded that in quiet conditions, “children were rated by their classroom teacher as having better language skills” and “performed better on a cognitive language skills test.”
Both those studies use industrial noise (factories and airports) and general city noise—traffic and bustle in their testing. They do not contemplate speakers going at full blast on a Carnival music truck, people living next door to an industrial plant, or a bar, as residents of Woodbrook and St James, and several areas throughout the country do.
It’s difficult for someone who has not experienced it to contemplate the type of assault that noise constitutes.
Dr Deborah Pinder, an audiologist at Diagnostic Research Educational and Therapeutic Centre for the Hearing Impaired (Dretchi), recalled that when she appeared on a television programme a few weeks ago, a woman called in crying because the bar she lived next to would not let her sleep. Several letters to the editor in recent weeks cited fetes which keep entire communities from sleeping.
Sleep deprivation’s effects ripple through the society and economy, causing decreased productivity, poor driving, irritability, and chronic stress-related disease.
Minister in the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources Ramona Ramdial, MP for Couva North, said she had noted the phenomenon of citizens opening small industrial businesses, like plastics manufacturing, in addition to bars, in the refurbished ground floors of their homes. This has led to several environmental issues, of which noise is only one.
She admitted several elements of the State’s enforcement and monitoring institutions were deficient, and has said the local government ministry is engaged in a process of reform which will strengthen agencies like Town & Country.
Pinder reiterated that there were no local studies done to determine the effects of excessive noise on social life. However, hints do exist from the studies of the potentially wide-ranging consequences of a noisy society.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) summary of adverse effects of noise pollution, by Louis Hagler, MD, concluded that noise pollution has “profound public health implications.”
The implications include: “interference with spoken communication,” which leads to disturbed interpersonal relationships, personal disabilities, and behavioural changes.
While noise does not cause mental illness, according to the WHO report, “it is assumed to accelerate and intensify the development of latent disorders.” Among the conditions noise pollution may contribute to are: emotional instability, argumentativeness, increase in social conflicts, hysteria and psychosis. Additionally, “children, the elderly, and those with underlying depression are particularly susceptible to those effects.”
What all this strongly implies is that the noise issue affects several areas of national life. Children and adults living in constant or chronic noise are at risk for low literacy, increased aggressiveness, and health risks.
Unfortunately the avenues for redress for sufferers (outlined in previous instalments of this series) are limited and time consuming. Police and EMA reports are tedious and frequently ineffective. Filing a personal action in the local magistrates’ court costs $3, but there is a high risk that the offender won’t be served the summons, far less appear in court.
A member of the judiciary interviewed for this article said there was also the possibility of bringing an action for harassment and damages in the High Court, rather than the magistrates courts, but this would require lawyers and more time. It might also be possible to seek an injunction to stop the offenders while the matter is being heard.
The main issue appears to be the wilful inefficiency of the authorities in enforcement, from local police to the Town & Country Planning Division, to other officials who enable offenders. Some people interviewed for the article spoke of loud bars in which public officials have shares, and against which no police action is taken.
Residents of Cunupia are at present suing the owner of a concrete batching plant which was featured on CNC3 late last year. The report said a Cabinet minister had overridden the EMA and Town & Country denials of permission. Residents say ministers and other high government officials are often seen at the plant, and ignore residents’ requests for assistance.
To change this culture of apathy requires citizens to pressure elected officials, or engage in high-profile litigation against offenders, who are usually much better at manipulating the system, and have more expensive lawyers. As long as elected officials remain complicit with offenders and apathetic to the public’s well-being, little will change.
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