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America is the noisiest country

America is the noisiest country

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We're getting louder, and our noise level is threatening to spread to the rest of the world.

Unwanted and potentially unhealthy noise permeates everything we do -- our homes, offices, leisure time, even our sleep, says the National Academy of Engineering in a report issued this week.

As world population grows and other countries become more industrialized, the noise problem will get worse and could lower the quality of life for everyone unless Americans, as residents of the world's noisiest country, decide to act.

Our worst noisemakers are machines -- all forms of transportation, including planes, trains, cars and trucks; lawnmowers, snow blowers, leaf blowers and other loud household products; and manufacturing machines. Their noise is inescapable and can damage hearing. But our metrics to measure noise were developed in the 1970s, when there were fewer machines and they were less dangerous to our health.

The Academy says that limits on noise in the workplace, which are set by the U.S. Department of Labor, should be reviewed and changed, and that "buy quiet" programs, which would create a market for quieter products, should be encouraged.

Some trade-offs are unavoidable. Which is better at lowering highway noise, the Academy asks -- redesigned road surfaces or noise barriers? (They ask for a cost-benefit analysis, but I say we should have both, because the type of highway noise you're exposed to is different when you're riding in the car than when you're standing by the side of the road).

The European Union is ahead of the U.S. on noise reduction -- it has set stricter regulations on noise emissions and has quieter products. Those products in turn give European companies an edge in the world market as quiet is valued more.

European companies are also more straightforward than U.S. companies about disclosing product noise to their customers. American manufacturers are ingenious, the Academy says, but they can't agree on uniform standards for measuring and labeling noise. Furthermore, the chief U.S. government agency in charge of these issues -- the Environmental Protection Agency -- is underfunded.

What do you think should be done about noise? The full report, which is over 100 pages, is here.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure