Environmental News Service

January 4, 2005

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina – Chainsaws, snowmobiles, weed wackers, leaf blowers, barking dogs – secondhand noise, experienced by people who did not produce it, is becoming a public health problem as well as an environmental problem in the United States, according to several new articles in the current edition of “Environmental Health Perspectives,” a publication of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal government agency.

“Noise is detrimental to health in several respects,” editorializes Wolfgang Babisch, a noise specialist with the German Federal Environmental Agency. It causes “hearing impairment, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, psychophysiologic effects, psychiatric symptoms, and fetal development. Furthermore, noise has widespread psychosocial effects including noise annoyance, reduced performance, and increased aggressive behavior.”

Another article in the publication quotes Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, an anti-noise advocacy group based in Montpelier, Vermont, who says that the effect of secondhand noise on people is similar to that of secondhand smoke. “Secondhand noise is really a civil rights issue. Like secondhand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over.”

The article, “Decibel Hell” by South Carolina writer Ron Chepesiuk, details what happened to the 1970s attempt to control excessive noise by law.

The Noise Control Act of 1972 empowered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine noise limits to protect the public health and welfare, and to establish a noise control office.

Under that law, Congress did establish the Office of Noise Abatement and Control, as well as federal standards for business, industries, and communities, and it began researching the effects of sound exposures, Chepesiuk writes, but the office lost its funding in 1982 during the Reagan administration.

“We are no longer doing research on noise,” Kenneth Feith, a senior EPA scientist and policy advisor, told Chepesiuk. “We just don’t have the money or staff to do it.”

New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey has tried repeatedly to pass the Quiet Communities Act, Chepesiuk writes, but it has failed to gather support in the House. “More and more communities are being affected by airports, trains, and railways,” Lowey said. “We need a national office to coordinate policy. That’s common sense to me.”

Mark Huber, communications director for Noise Free America, is quoted as saying that lobbyists are responsible for exposing the public to secondhand noise. “By using paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures, the automobile and entertainment industries are quietly removing obstacles protecting the public against noise,” he said.

Not everyone agrees. Chepesiuk quotes Stephen McDonald, vice president of government affairs for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and installers of specialty automotive equipment, including boom car equipment, who denies that any powerful lobby exists and is working against the best interests of society.

In the same issue, Charles Schmidt writes in a separate article, “Noise that Annoys: Regulating Unwanted Sound,” that establishing causal links between sounds and health risks is challenging, if not impossible. He quotes Sanford Fidell, a noise expert with a California consulting firm for airports, communities, and government agencies who points out that unlike drugs or chemicals, noise pollution leaves no residue in the body. That makes it tough to measure the cumulative effects of noise or to distinguish noise impacts from similar stress producers.

Schmidt explores local and state versus federal noise regulations and concludes that either the federal government should take over noise regulation or leave the field to local governments to regulate.

Read the noise articles at: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/