Tortured by the noise

What do Aztec warfare, South and North Korean clashes, the conflict in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay and living in a Maltese town have in common?

In all cases there are instances of intense sound torture, a persistent, damaging loud noise that dominates the lives of individuals, overpowering their senses and damaging them to the point where the lifestyle of each goes to the dogs.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, our small flat is being assaulted on two sides by horrendous noise. Immediately behind us there’s a jackhammer, very slowly and agonisingly demolishing a gorgeous old townhouse to turn it into a tower of flats, the earsplitting metallic stuttering making us shout to be heard. In the meantime the flat shudders and vibrates every other second as in front of us, a metal monstrosity toc-toc-tocs incessantly from seven in the morning till seven at night, digging into the rock of a huge plot that used to be a factory, aided by a large electric shovel that reverberatingly piles the dug-up rocks into the back of a truck. Every day. Six (sometimes seven) days a week. Assaulting every sense, flooding my head with so much noise there is a persistent headache and a feeling of hopelessness that makes me want to run away. Except that, in Malta, there is nowhere to run away to from the persistent, loud noise.

Writing in Torture and Democracy about a 1971 instance of sound torture during the conflict in Northern Ireland, Darius Rejali has this to say about the effect of persistent noise on the prisoners. “Most men reported auditory hallucinations including church hymns, Sousa marches, an Italian tenor, protest poems, and a death service. […] Less attention has been paid [by the guards] to the not so dramatic effects of the tortures, including blurred vision, intense loss of sensation, and intense swelling of the ankles to almost twice normal size.” (p. 364)

There is rampant over-construction going on in Malta, uncontrolled for a very long time, but even worse now that MEPA has lost all sense of anything short of the politically instigated and is allowing everything everywhere. Because of this, normal Maltese people, living their daily lives in homes that should be their castles of relaxation, are exposed to continuous noise pollution This has seriously interfered with our well-being, causing us an irretrievable loss of rest and the undermining of a lifestyle we worked very hard to achieve.

But that’s not the only thing we’ve lost in the process. Peace of mind is absolutely necessary to the functioning of people who need to work for a living and who then need to recharge, otherwise they don’t function. The effect of the constant noise around us is also ruining our health.

According to S. K. Agarwal, in his 2009 book Noise Pollution, persistent noise can have an enormously negative effect on people. Selecting just a few effects from a never-ending list, I can mention: ill-temper, mental disorientation, loss of working efficiency, violent behaviour, and a lot of psychological and physiological disorders – neurosis, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension and even severe effects on foetuses in the case of pregnant women. All of this results in severe health consequences, which include: hearing damage, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, ear pain, burning of the skin, significant change in pulse rate, and prolonged exposure can cause insanity, ear drum ruptures and lung damage.

A 2011 Danish study by the University of Copenhagen’s Mette Sørensen and her colleagues terrifyingly showed that there is a direct relationship between the increase of noise and stroke.

I can continue quoting the literature ad nauseam. Everything says that noise is bad for you. Everything!

So why are the Maltese so apathetic to all of this? When I posted on a social network a sound recording of the horrendous noise that forms the backdrop to my daily life in my apartment (in spite of its double glazing), I got a lot of sympathetic noises, with some people actually telling me they’ve had to buy noise-filtering headphones, and others having to sleep with ear-plugs in, but nobody could suggest anything practical to stop this infernal intrusion into our daily lives. We accept it as if it’s a normal part of who we are. ‘The Maltese are a noisy race, what can we do?’ ‘There is nothing wrong with manically pealing bells being played through loudspeakers in the local belfry at 6.30 in the morning… it’s all part of our traditions!’ ‘The economy depends on the construction industry. They need to work, after all!’

But what about our own civil liberties? What about our own slice of happiness and the right to living a healthy life that is not corroded by someone else’s egotistic activity that ignores entirely the fact that there are those who will not benefit from any of the construction, but who are being severely hurt by the effects of it?

The EU demands that local authorities make action plans to reduce ambient noise, which categorically includes construction noises. In a number of directives, I have found reference to the fact that these authorities have the power to provide that conditions in relation to noise prevention or reduction be included in the planning permission at granting stage, and these are conditions that can apply to either the construction stage or the subsequent use of the building. Or both.

So why do the local authorities (read MEPA and local councils) ignore this? Yes, there might be lip service paid to noise abatement, but it is little more than that given the proof. What can a normal citizen, needing to rest in a home that should be a protector of health and sanity do to ascertain that there is no infringement to the right of the enjoyment of a lifestyle that is not deteriorated abysmally by others?

Our very existence is being threatened by the noise that seems to be increasing every day. Our authorities do not seem to care one whit about this. Maybe it is time for a citizen’s movement to rise and demand a right to sanity!

(Published in THE TIMES of MALTA on March 9, 2016)

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