Let's stop normalizing noise culture in Latin America

Street mural of a woman making the ‘silence gesture.’ Image via Pxhere. License: CC0 Public domain.

On the screen, there appears a man who's trying to sleep, but can't because of the noise from next door. He walks next door to his neighbor, who doesn't hear him at first. Then the neighbor responds with a gunshot. This isn't the script of a gag comic or a cartoon, but reality. During Mother's Day celebrations in Colombia, in the early morning of May 12, a 50-year-old man was murdered by his neighbors after asking them to turn down the volume of the music at their party.

Such scenes are common in Colombia and throughout Latin America. They speak not only to the intolerance that exists between neighbors but also of a deep cultural problem with respect to the use and abuse of noise.

While it is common knowledge that the sound of an explosion can cause hearing loss, it can also occur gradually through continuous exposure to loud sounds, such as listening to music through headphones at high volume, or constant exposure to loud music.

In 2013, the World Health Organization estimated that 360 million people have hearing loss — that is, about 5.3 percent of the world population. Of those, 32 million are infants. In Colombia, by 2015, about 11 percent of the total population had hearing problems. Among the active working population aged 25 to 50, sound-induced hearing loss is estimated at 14 percent.

On any day, the traffic lights have not yet changed and drivers are already beeping. Buses honk loudly every time they make a stop. When boarding public transportation, people listen to their music or watch videos on their cell phones, without headphones. On the street, people on foot and motorcycles carry loudspeakers with colorful lights, with the volume turned up to the max. Add to this, bicycles with engines that generate absurd noise pollution, compete with motorcycles worthy of a scene from Fast & Furious.

There are those who have parties on rooftops or in communal spaces that can be heard throughout the block and can last for days on end. There is no respite even at mealtimes. In the restaurants, televisions playing soccer games can be heard blocks away. Each locale has its own loudspeaker. The medical consultation offices that in decades past were decorated with posters of a nurse with her finger to her lips now have televisions and everyone is allowed to use their cell phones at whatever volume they want.

In cities like Bogotá, the police are supposed to intervene when one's neighbors are too loud. However, those who have gone through this experience know that involving the police in this manner can be unsafe, causing further problems for civic coexistence. And in residential units, the administration likewise does little to address these problems.

Traffic operation against vehicle noise nuisance, Lima, Peru. Photo by Municipalidad de Miraflores on Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

In this regard, the bill on noise pollution (“Law against noise“), led by Colombian Chamber of Representatives figure Daniel Carvalho, seeks to establish guidelines for the formulation of a noise quality policy in the country. This bill would guarantee the well-being of people as well as the plants and animals of various ecosystems by promoting environments free from noise, thereby challenging current norms in Colombia. The drafting of the bill was participatory, involving the collaboration of environmental organizations, academia, and those affected by noise.

The initiative, apart from supporting the bill, seeks the commitment of citizens to a “Manifesto of Serenity.” The manifesto calls for maintaining a healthy and respectful coexistence with neighbors; avoiding the use of loudspeakers in public spaces; using audio and television devices with moderate volume; implementing driving techniques friendly to the noise environment, such as not using the horn unnecessarily and preferring sustainable mobility, and speaking in public or private places in a moderate tone of voice.

Faced with overexposure to auditory stress, one possible option, if one has the financial resources, is to move to the outskirts of one's city. However, this implies longer travel times. And sooner or later, the irresponsibility of loudspeaker owners will also arrive there.

Other options, which also require a large amount of money, are remodeling with acoustic insulation: a box-within-a-box system, similar to those that bars and discotheques should use. There are also soundproof windows, which use thick tempered glass and air chambers.

Somewhat more affordable and portable solutions — noise occurs not only in residential areas but also in public spaces — are noise-canceling earbuds, soundproof earbuds, and earplugs for sleeping. It is increasingly common for people to use them to sleep, work, or in their everyday lives. Using headphones with white noise, brown noise, and rain noise can help concentration.

Soundproof headphones, with or without noise cancellation, are suitable for people with Asperger syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and sensitivity to loud noises. They are also ideal for situations in which we want to reduce sound, such as when studying, at concerts, while sleeping, in the theater, at events, and in any situation where noise is too disturbing.

Music, which should be a source of pleasure, since it releases dopamine in the brain, becomes ridiculously unbearable when it becomes an element of power over others. Whoever controls the source of noise controls the health of those around them.

It's time to stop normalizing the culture of noise. Let's be aware of how our noise affects our environment. Something as insignificant as a repetitive beep on the cell phone can cause serious problems for whoever is sitting next to oneself. Let's understand that noise can cause not only hearing loss but also migraines, frustration, fear of coming home, despair, and even a death wish.

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