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Noiseless manifestoes

I wish to thank and congratulate two recent contributions on the issue of noise pollution, by Horace Green and Grace Watson. Theirs have been easily the clearest and most erudite explanations of both the physical and social effects on those who live on this little island.

Green drew attention to the effect – long identified by researchers – of noise on pregnancy. He wrote: “When a pregnant woman goes into a night club, for example, where music is thumping and where she may be only a few metres away from the source of the vibration, the vibration is penetrating her whole body. Is anything happening to the unborn?”

Watson wrote: “Like all anti-social behaviours noise seems to function like a contagion. As people become inured to its effects, they themselves indulge.”

She cited how a typical small church progresses from services accompanied by a keyboard and tambourines to a drum set and microphones amplified at high volume: “They blast surrounding homes for hours on a Sunday and weekday evenings turning a once inspirational and pleasant experience into a painful event to be endured.”

Watson figured “Perhaps God himself protects the hearing of the congregation, including the little children, who are forced to come away with ears ringing – not with the word of God – but the vibrations and explosions of the speaker system.”

Green supported the position of The Society for a Quieter Barbados with a reminder about the importance of legislation. He said: “This matter is serious; too serious to be taken lightly by the powers that be. It would be gross negligence on the part of any government to do nothing to protect the people. Doing the right thing in this case does not require a US$50million loan – simply legislation and enforcement.”

With that comment in mind, I patiently waited to see what the two political parties would have to say – this time around – in their manifestoes about the environment and, maybe, a word or two about what they would do about noise pollution. After all, they have been talking around the matter ad nauseam from as far back as 1979.

With much fanfare, both parties came out with their long-awaited documents but the environment didn’t attract much attention. It seems as though those who suffer from the menace of noise will have to wait a little longer until our law-makers one day accidentally collide with the reality that noise is a danger to the environment and the health of the citizens of this island.

But the issue is more than noise. It’s about respect and consideration for one another – an ideal shouted from many a platform during the just-ended election campaigning. As we acquire more and more comforts as our society “develops”, Barbadians are going to have to work out an acceptable modus vivendi if we are going to live in relative harmony on this 166-square-mile piece of real estate.

The noise problem is island wide; it’s affecting people from all walks of life. Not only – as some mischievously suggest – those who live in the parks, and the heights and the terraces. People feel trapped in their homes in Pinelands, Bayville, Haynesville, Silver Hill, Bush Hall – all across Barbados.

And the agony is not shared only by the old and confined; it’s affecting the 16-year-old student who cried out in despair in a recent letter to Christine because of the constant noise in her home; and the young lady who told me she could not study at her home in Gemswick and spent all her time in the UWI library, returning to St. Philip in the wee hours of the morning.

To get a little peace and quiet, she told me, she sometimes went to the drive-in cinema – not to watch a movie: to sleep! I hope she has since received her degree.

Then there’s the lady from Welches in St. Michael: she spends most of her day walking on the beach, or window-shopping in malls, or visiting friends.

And what about Maureen Tudor who lives in Pickwick Gap and works a stone’s throw away at the Bridgetown Port? When there’s a show on at Kensington Oval – not cricket – she has to take refuge at a friend’s home in St. Philip in order to get some sleep, only to trek back to Bridgetown the following morning to work – a few paces she normally walks when there’s no racket at the Oval.

Of course, the possibility is never entertained that there’s no need for so much volume – that’s non-negotiable.

Noise pollution is a very serious problem in Barbados.

* Noise is a biological stressor that has negative effects on the entire physiological system, contributing to elevated blood pressure, and changes in blood chemistry.

* Noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss making communication difficult and frustrating. Moreover, much of the hearing loss that people associate with aging is actually caused by noise exposure.

* Noise causes sleep disturbances, which lead to a host of problems, including reduced job performance, mood changes, and increased risk of vehicular accidents.

* Noise negatively affects one’s ability to learn and concentrate. Studies have shown decreased reading ability and scholastic performance of school children exposed to noise. A researcher recently found that noisy classrooms encourage children to tune out not only extraneous noises, but also the teacher, leading to attention and behavioural problems. Studies of adults show poorer performance of complex tasks in noisy environments.

* Noise renders us less tolerant of frustration and numb to the needs of other people, further reducing our quality of life and the civility of society.

And what about legislation? The world would be an ideal place if we had no need for laws. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There will always be need for laws to keep in line those who have difficulty behaving themselves.

We in Barbados are good at passing laws; sadly, we don’t do so well in enforcing them.

In the 2004 Report of the National Commission on Law and Order, this note appears at Page 95: “As far back as 1979, extensive discussions were held on a draft Bill covering many of the areas now being complained of, but to date there has been no introduction of the legislation required.

“The police therefore have to rely on persuasion and vague threats of prosecution in order to effect some abatement, but these are now wearing thin. Every effort should be made to introduce legislation dealing with noise pollution at the earliest opportunity.”

So you can see that we’ve been playing around with this matter since 1979. At that time, we had got as far as a draft bill, according to the report. Yet, in 2004 – 25 years later, the Ministry of the Environment could come out with a “green” paper, soliciting responses from the community on noise pollution.

A series of town meetings followed and – believe it or not – another draft bill appeared around 2007, only to run in to the announcement of general elections a few weeks later. On the morning of January 16, 2008, Barbadians got up with a new government and no more was heard of that draft bill.

So, another draft bill was on its way. It never saw the light of day. I guess yet another one will be in the making after the general election of February 21.

Indeed, after several months, the new administration announced that they were coming up with their own noise pollution legislation. Parliament has been prorogued after five years and we haven’t seen or heard of it yet. A more graphic case of reinventing the wheel is yet to be found.

I don’t think we in Barbados are terribly interested in the environment. Lots of talk, for sure – parroting of the latest catch-phrase or clich√ – like “green”. Suddenly, everything is going to be “green”. As if it isn’t already – with all the bush and wild vines around the country!

In 1910, the German bacteriologist Robert Koch, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905, predicted that: “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.”

That day has come.

* Carl Moore is President of The Society for a Quieter Barbados

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