- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

Marge Jylkka likens hearing loss to afreshly mowed yard."Hearing loss really takes place inside your inner ear," says Ms. Jylkka, an audiologist at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. "There are these little microscopic hairs in the cochlea that respond to sound, and when they're healthy they're waving back and forth. If you could see them under a microscope after they've been damaged, they would look like they had been run over by a lawn mower. They just lie there. And they don't come back."
Audiologists like Ms. Jylkka are seeing more and more hearing-related problems every day. More than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous sound levels — anything louder than 70 decibels — every day, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. Fifteen out of every 1,000 children younger than 18 have some type of hearing impairment, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
And while loud and potentially damaging sounds can come from a variety of places — playgrounds, city sidewalks, even health clubs — some of the loudest sounds Washingtonians will hear on a daily basis come from highways and airports. And the D.C. metropolitan area, like many large urban areas in the country, has plenty of both. Tuning out or turning down the volume, though, isn't that easy.

'Seeing the light'
Is America getting noisier? The League for the Hard of Hearing in New York, a hearing rehabilitation and service agency founded in 1910, says yes. And the league's Noise Center recently completed an 18-year survey to prove it. The survey studied 64,000 people during the last 18 years and found that hearing loss increased from 15 to 60 percent across every age group.
League Director Nancy Nadler says such recent additions to the culture as Jet Skis, leaf blowers, video arcades, personal stereo systems and snowmobiles have had the cumulative effect of increasing environmental noise.
Les Blomberg, founder of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Burlington, Vt., says sensitivity to noise is something people either get or they don't. For a long time, he didn't.
"I was a normal, everyday guy," he says. "I wasn't particularly interested or concerned about noise. All of a sudden, though, I started waking up [because of the noise] three or four times a week at 4 in the morning and I realized it was an issue."
That was in 1996, the year he founded the clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that collects information on noise issues and raises public awareness about them.
Mr. Blomberg says he hears from about 200 people a week, either by phone or e-mail, all of whom have "seen the light" about noise problems and want to know how they can get involved.
"The common thread I see is that these are just normal citizens who are actually thrust into the role of activist," he says. "The numbers are growing. It's quite surprising to see the span of the political spectrum involved in this. We get a lot of conservatives who moved to the suburbs into their dream house, and they expected it to be a nice quiet suburb, and suddenly they realized how noisy it is. And they don't want to move another 50 miles away."
That's where Charlie Adams comes in.

Stopping highway noise
As director of the Maryland State Highway Administration's (SHA) Department of Environmental Design, Mr. Adams oversees noise barrier construction. As the suburbs move farther and farther away from Washington and Baltimore, and housing communities spring up closer and closer to major arteries like the Interstate 270 corridor, I-95 and I-97, Mr. Adams finds himself a busy man these days.
Mr. Adams says highway noise barrier projects are divided into two classifications: Type I and Type II. Type I projects are done on new highways and expansion sites, and Type II projects are done retroactively on existing roads. Both are funded by the Federal Highway Administration.
He says sound barrier projects get started either by the community or the SHA, depending on what kind of project it is. Type I projects often start with the SHA, but Type II projects are often initiated by the communities affected.
Mr. Adams says noise barrier costs range widely because of their size, proximity to the highway and other factors. He says the SHA has about $80 million to $90 million in its budget for Type II barriers in the next six years.
He says the change in noise after a barrier is built is dramatic.
"If we're able to cut the noise level by just 10 decibels, which these barriers usually do, most people would think the loudness has been cut in half," Mr. Adams says.
Another way highway noise could be reduced, Mr. Blomberg says, is to reduce the speed limit. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse has compiled data from Environmental Acoustics, a research and consulting firm in Pennsylvania, that shows the difference between 55 mph and 65 mph is three decibels (at a distance of 50 feet). Reducing vehicle speed from 40 to 30 mph, the survey found, has the same effect as removing half the vehicles from the highway.
Mr. Blomberg knows reducing the speed limit just to cut down on highway noise wouldn't be a popular decision, especially in a fast-paced city like the District, but he notes that the U.S. Annual Housing Survey done by the Census Bureau always finds that noise is one of the chief complaints lodged by homeowners, higher than crime.

'Hushing' airplane noise

Road noise may be bothersome to many people, but jet plane noise is often downright dangerous. Airplane noise, in fact, can reach 150 decibels at takeoff, which is 20 decibels louder than a rock concert and 10 decibels louder than a gunshot.
And with three airports in or near the Washington metropolitan area, there are plenty of communities that struggle with airplane noise. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have struggled with the issue, too, and since 1976 have tackled the problem by establishing guidelines for noise levels for airplanes during takeoffs and landings, depending on the size of the plane.
The FAA says when it released its first noise-abatement policy in 1976, 6 million to 7 million Americans living near airports were subjected to significant levels of aircraft noise, which the FAA defined as averaging 65 decibels or louder around the clock. Last year, the FAA estimated that those numbers were down to about 500,000 Americans.
Also last year, the FAA released another noise-abatement policy, which included among its goals reducing aircraft noise at its source, using new technologies to mitigate noise impacts and designing aircraft routes to minimize noise.
One way aviation engineers helped the industry meet the FAA guidelines through the years was by developing "hush kits," which are basically muffler systems for the engines.
Robert Finn, manager of AvAero, an aviation safety manufacturing company in Safety Harbor, Fla., says hush kits attack the two parts of an airplane engine that make the most noise.
"Most of the noise is generated from the front and the rear of the engine," Mr. Finn says. "We install an exhaust gas mixer into the tail of the engine that reduces the temperature of the air coming out and takes away a lot of that rumble effect. And we relocated the rotary part of the engine in front about 5 inches forward, which eliminated a lot of the siren effect you get from those big blades churning."
Mr. Finn says hush kits cost about $1.5 million per aircraft, meaning that airline manufacturers have to decide whether they are worth it, depending on the age of the plane.
"The choices are if you have an aircraft that is 15 years old and may have 10 more years of life, the choices are to hush-kit the aircraft or go out and buy a new Boeing 747 for $40 million."
Airplane noise isn't as big an issue at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport as it is at other large airports, says Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman with the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority, which oversees both airports. She says there are several reasons for that, including the relatively large size of Dulles — about 11,000 acres, which limits noise complaints from surrounding communities — and Reagan National Airport's "fly by the river" policy.
Under that policy, which is urged but not mandated, pilots fly as closely as they can along the Potomac River when approaching and departing ReaganNational Airport, which also cuts down on the noise that people on the ground hear.
"National is also a slot-controlled airport, which means there's a limit to the number of flights in and out in a given hour," Ms. Hamilton says. "That's another factor that limits the noise there."
Baltimore-Washington International Airport has a Noise Abatement Plan that was put into effect in 1998 by the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA). The plan covers departure and arrival procedures for aircraft and limits the kinds of aircraft that can use certain runways at certain times.
BWI has noise-assistance programs for residents and schools in the surrounding areas. In 1985, the MAA began buying property around the airport that was affected the most by noise, and three years after that began a homeowner assistance program for homeowners exposed to noise of about 70 decibels.
As of March 1998, the MAA had assisted 412 homeowners by either soundproofing their houses or relocating them at a cost of $10 million, according to the MAA's Noise Abatement Plan.

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