How life at home has become noisier during COVID-19

On a usual weekday, Dora Turje hears weed whackers buzzing. And lawn mowers roaring. And woodpeckers tapping on balcony railings — a sound akin to "distant machine-gun fire." 

But even when the middle-school teacher slides her window shut in her Burnaby, B.C., apartment, she can't escape her downstairs neighbour, who teaches piano remotely and plays the flute.

Thankfully, Turje has a trumpet of her own to mask the noise. 

"It's like a boombox battle of beginner instrumentation happening upstairs and downstairs," she said.

For the past two months, COVID-19 has altered soundscapes. Traffic has calmed, oceans have hushed, and even the Earth's crust has quietened, producing less seismic noise. But the pandemic, and its stay-at-home measures, have also amplified the cacophony of domestic life.

Complaints to the City of Vancouver about residential and construction noise more than doubled between March 16 and April 16, versus the same time last year. A total of 109 people complained about a neighbour, up from 50 in 2019. And the city fielded 220 reports about construction sound, up from 99 in 2019.

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Research has shown all that commotion isn't just a nuisance — it can have a long-term impact on health. Chronic exposure to noise has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and slower cognitive development in babies.

And with nearly 40 per cent of Canada's workforce — about 6.8 million people — now working from home, noisy households could increasingly pose a public health risk.

"Noise is a powerful stressor," said Hugh Davies, a University of British Columbia professor who studies noise pollution. "People are noticing things they've never noticed before."

Offices tend to be noisier than homes, but Davies said it's not just the decibel level that counts.

Consider a dripping tap and how it gets more annoying with time. Frequency also plays a part, such as the bass from your neighbour's stereo travelling through the walls. Then there's the source: you might enjoy watching TV on your lunch break, but if you turn it off to resume work and your neighbour is playing the same show, that noise becomes aggravating.

'I don't have anywhere else to go'

Terry Clark's home in Terrace, B.C., has sounded like a construction site for the past month. An excavator rumbles nearby several times a week and fumes seep into her house due to her next-door neighbours, who are using their time at home to landscape.

"It drives me up the wall," said Clark, a recent retiree. "I have to go in my house and shut all the doors and windows."

The pandemic has made Clark feel trapped, with few options for escape. And her neighbours have brushed her off when she's brought up her noise concerns, she said.

Peter Leathard, president of the soundproofing business Hush City in Richmond, B.C., said calls have spiked in the past six weeks. Stomping and blaring music and television are the most common complaints, he said.

But fixing the problem isn't easy. Soundproofing a home can mean ripping out insulation and drywall, which isn't an option for renters. Quicker fixes, such as window inserts, cost hundreds of dollars. 

"Lots of people in the past weeks have said we're just going to look at moving," Leathard said. 

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

For some, noise poses a greater threat. Kristin Friesen suffers from hyperacussis, a neurological disorder that makes normal sounds extra loud. The 38-year-old musician wears noise-cancelling headphones for everyday tasks to protect her ears from a stabbing sensation.

Lately, Friesen has had to rush back home from her daily walk before 7 p.m. to avoid the nightly cheer for frontline workers. Once she's inside her Mount Pleasant apartment, Friesen takes shelter in the bathroom for several minutes.

"This is my last safe place," she said. "I don't have anywhere else to go."

Friesen said she appreciates the intent of the cheer. What concerns her more are the unexpected fireworks. If they go off when she's not wearing protection, her recovery could be set back by months.

"Noise can hurt people," she said. "It can really sneak up on you."

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So what can you do?

There are some ways to get around the racket. 

Shut your windows if the noise is coming from outside. Put in some earplugs, or invest in some noise-cancelling headphones.

If neither is comfortable, mask the sound with a more preferable ambient noise, such as a fan or dishwasher. Some people swear by white noise machines, which can cost as little as $30. Heavy drapes can muffle traffic noise.

Avoid stewing over the sound and find the source, advises Davies, the UBC professor. That loud conversation outside your window, for instance, may actually be someone talking to their elderly parent from a distance.

Focused activities, such as baking or sewing, can naturally block out sounds too.

If it's your neighbour who's bothering you, address the issue with them first. To combat stomping, ask if they can consider investing in rugs, said Leathard.

Compromising with them might feel stressful, but it could save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

"Noise control and cost effective don't generally belong in the same sentence," Leathard said.