In here: Noises off

Noise pollution has become the public health issue of the decade. It has caused murders, suicides, heart attacks, allergies, tension, sludgy blood...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The true number of victims or the sum total in human misery will probably never be of the most complex and difficult technical and legal issues of our time...up to 18 million UK citizens, whose lives are wrecked

These sombre words refer not to the horrors of passive smoking, or the feelings of fans mourning the departure of Robbie from Nineties supergroup Take That! but to the effect of noise - or, to quote again from the Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign (RPQC), "unwanted sound".

Noise pollution, commonly associated with inconsiderate or malicious neighbours, has become the public health issue of the decade. It has caused murders, suicides, heart attacks, allergies, tension, sludgy blood. It has kept the courts busy, notably attending to the young woman addicted to Whitney Houston's "I will always love yoooo...". It is a major preoccupation (one of the few left) of local government: this June, Westminster Council's Noise Team received 1,600 complaints, a figure set to rise with the heat wave. And the problem is not confined to the inner city: the Mail on Sunday, campaigning on the issue, found that rural and semi-rural areas, including Kent, Essex, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, had the highest number of complainants.

Happily, such lobbying is beginning to have an impact. In March, the Department of the Environment issued a working party report on neighbour noise control; recommendations included the power to confiscate noise- producing equipment, either permanently or charging for its return. The RPQC's "community code" - Don't slam any doors at any time. Don't leave dogs alone for long periods - may one day be law.

But this is not the end of the story. For a new, noise-related syndrome is emerging, against which laws cannot be drafted and for which there is no known remedy. As yet, it does not even have an agreed name. Dr Ross Coles, chairman of the British Society of Audiology, thinks the most accurate term may be "excessive sensitivity to annoyance by noise". Val Gibson, founder of the RPQC, talks about "people who are sensitised to and phobic about noise". In the interests of sound- bite journalism, I prefer to call the syndrome Noise Neurosis.

Val Gibson is a classic sufferer of NN. Traumatised several years ago by a severe neighbour noise problem, she now lives in a detached house in southeast London. But everyday noise still dominates her life. "The bass beat in modern music makes me feel quite ill," she says. "Other people go, `What noise?'" Meanwhile, sleep remains difficult. "It's chaos in the morning from about 4am: the milkman, dogs barking, cars starting. We can't go anywhere unless I'm able to travel first class and I know that the hotel is going to be quiet. Most of the time I retreat indoors. And it's getting worse every year."

Val is not alone. Keith Lester, head of Westminster's Noise Team, estimates that five per cent of cases he deals with come from NNs - typically female and elderly - complaining about low frequency "humming" or ordinary, low- level noise. "Most people will compromise," says Mr Lester. "But phobics can hear this noise and we can't - our equipment registers nothing. Despite irrefutable scientific evidence, they will go to their MP or the council. I have great sympathy with them," says Mr Lester, "but it's a no-win situation."

I am a borderline NN. The problem began at university, when (a) my room was next to the staircase; (b) the boy next door (an English student) hosted nightly small-hours drinking sessions and (c) the dustmen came every morning. Clump, clump, clump! Ha, Derrida, ha grnnnr! The following year, I thumped a freezer to death after being driven mad by its low-level hum. These days I scream abuse at aeroplanes and fear there is a secret minicab company at the end of our street.

The prognosis is not good. Dr Coles can treat physiological conditions with scary names (hyperacusis, phonophobia, recruitment of loudness). He has at his disposal clever machines called noise generators, which decrease sensitivity to noise. But NNs? "I find them terribly difficult to deal with," he says. "They're obsessed by noise, yet you can't desensitise them - they have a psychological barrier to it."

A ray of hope is offered by a hearing scientist who - pursued by hummers, perhaps - would only talk to me off the record. The key, he said, is the meaning of noise. For people traumatised by neighbours, all noise remains a source of fear and anxiety; in rural areas (where they may have escaped), they may fixate on an ordinary background hum. Meanwhile, a person who finds her country cottage is now under the Stansted flight path will become highly sensitised to aircraft noise. All I need do, therefore, is develop my personal noise dictionary. What does noise represent to me?

Going to university must, unconsciously, have been a massive trauma. The stairs going up to the next floor represented the pressure to succeed, the dustmen below the terrible jaws of failure, the boy next door my fear of loneliness (or my repressed desire to study English?), the freezer my quasi-anorexia. But why am I not phobic about all noise? And what explains the aeroplane hatred? Does it symbolise my frustrated desire to go on holiday more often? I'm not convinced.

Noise neurosis is more complex than the experts have anticipated. Even as I write, I am gummed up with drops, antibiotics and paracetamol, fighting an ear infection which may have been brought on by earplugs. I hear the world as if through cotton wool. Bliss? No, I hate it. I feel cut off and panicky. Is anybody there?