Why it’s time to turn down the volume on modern life and savour the silence

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WE all know them – sounds we endure in our everyday lives that also have a certain quality which sets the nerve endings screaming. In my case that noise is the sound of the high-powered Dyson hand dryer commonly used in workplaces, bars and restaurants. All very hygienic, I’m sure, but the loud, insistent whooshing, which changes to an even more annoying noise when you put your hands into its mouth, is calculated to make my fillings rattle in their cavities.

And talking of cavities, who was the genius that thought it was okay to build dental drills that sound so similar to the ones we use to make holes in walls? Even the most relaxed individual surely suffers spikes of blood pressure as the power tool approaches their mouth. It’s mostly down to that infernal noise – not just the decibels but the high-pitched whirr which triggers macabre imaginings.

Life was a lot quieter when household chores were done using elbow grease alone. Today our lives are fast and stressful enough outside the home, and the ever-increasing cacophony of traffic is unavoidable. But when we get home to what should be our haven, we are exposed not just to the normal racket of human voices and music, TV or radio when we choose to enjoy them, but a grim orchestra of other background noise. According to the World Health Organisation, excessive noise can seriously harm human health, disturbing sleep and causing cardiovascular and psychophysiological harm. People who consistently suffer excessive noise can experience high levels of “annoyance response” and changes in behaviour.

In kitting out the kitchen with machines and gadgets that wash and dry our clothes and dishes, food processors, blenders, juicers, microwaves and cookers with high-powered hoods that sound like a 747 ready for take-off, fridges that rumble and groan and kettles that prevent all conversation, we are creating a backdrop of unnecessary stress. Add to those the all-drowning effect of a vacuum cleaner and the fact that so many machines ping or beep (again and again...) to say they’ve finished the cycle – it’s a wonder anyone ever hears a baby cry.

The fashion for knocking down walls to create open-plan kitchen/dining/living areas has made the matter worse, meaning the volume on TVs, radios and computer games is ramped up to compensate. Then, if you want to talk to another human being in the house, you’re really going to have to bellow.

It seems to have taken a ridiculous length of time for anyone to ask why domestic machinery is so noisy, and whether we can have equally efficient appliances which don’t make us feel as though a train is travelling through the house. But at last the cavalry has arrived.

Gloria and Poppy Elliott are the mother and daughter team behind Quiet Mark, a new kite-marking initiative being rolled out over the next few months, which sources quieter alternatives to our noisier household appliances and awards them a distinctive purple “Q” to show that they have been tested against similar products by the Association of Noise Consultants.

The quietest products, from whispering shredders to near-silent kettles, have started to appear in an online catalogue. It’s hoped that the kudos of being awarded a Quiet Mark “Q” will spur all manufacturers to create more quiet products.

Gloria is chief executive of the Noise Abatement Society, which was started by her father John Connell in 1959. Mother and daughter came up with the idea of Quiet Mark (Poppy is marketing director) in response to the floods of calls to the NAS helpline from consumers complaining about the noise made by domestic appliances.

Poppy, a former Holby City actress, says: “Imagine how much more relaxed you would be if the kettle didn’t drown out the sound of birds in the garden or you didn’t start the day with a headache induced by the noise of your hairdryer. Living in a less noisy environment will make us more relaxed, kind, patient and creative, with our heartbeat slowing down. And if each household makes less noise, we bother our neighbours less.”

Brands such as Philips, Panasonic, Bosch, Samsung and Lexus have signed up to the QM scheme and the first 25 awards have been made to quiet appliances. Celebrity hairdresser Trevor Sorbie has agreed to use silencers on the hairdryers in all of his salons.

“It is extraordinary that this has never happened before,” says Gloria. “We have eco-friendly energy ratings on machines but no information about noise, which is a pollutant and should also be high up on the eco agenda.

“Let’s face it, if it’s possible to make a quiet car, then it’s also possible to make a quiet vacuum cleaner.”

Three per cent of the cost of products sold online from the Quiet Mark catalogue will go back into the campaign.

One of the first QM awards has gone to a dual-wall kettle made by Magimix, a company that had already heeded consumers’ requests for less noise. “Customers had told us they wanted a quieter kettle,” says UK managing director Neal Jones. “We made a double wall so that it is both quiet and energy-saving because the water stays hotter for longer, and reboiling is very fast.

“The Quiet Mark endorsement is really important to us and provides an extra marketing tool, but obviously we have to ensure that functionality isn’t sacrificed.“

The NAS campaigns against noise on many fronts, and no doubt John Connell would be proud of QM. The entrepreneur and visionary got the government of the day on board when he lobbied for the Noise Abatement Act by turning up at 6am and beating a large drum outside the home of the minister of aviation, Duncan Sandys, complaining about the noise of night flights over London.

Gloria and Poppy’s next project will tackle dog noise, and will include special training methods and sound-proofed kennels. It’s called Quiet Bark... naturally.