by Molly Mann

February 1, 2010

By the time your neighbor’s car alarm goes off for the fourth time at 5 a.m., you’re ready to declare your city the noisiest in the United States. But is it really? Noise pollution is a growing concern; it can boost blood pressure, elevate heart rate, and wreak havoc on sleep cycles. The urban landscape is full of barking dogs, sirens, and car-horn honks; how are some of the noisier cities handling it?

Rowdy Rankings
In 2009, Men’s Health put out a list of the one hundred noisiest cities in America. Sara Vigneri, who compiled the rankings, checked to see whether the cities have legislation limiting excessive noise, like the aforementioned barking dogs and honking horns, and construction work. She also contacted the Texas Transportation Institute to determine the most traffic-congested towns, and asked Boeing for a list of cities that impose curfews on airports’ overnight flights. Finally, she considered the percentage of people in each city who report sleeping seven hours a night or fewer, according to data from Experian Consumer Research.

Vigneri’s ranking shows that America’s loudest city is Detroit, Michigan, while its quietest is Hartford, Connecticut. I can understand that Detroit is a factory town, with a lot of industrial noise from General Motors, but should it really rank above New York City, which comes in at eighty-six (one hundred being the loudest)?

Curb Your (Barking) Dog
Maybe the reason New York City, infamous for its congested traffic and high population density, doesn’t rank higher on the Men’s Health list is that mayor Michael Bloomberg’s measures to toughen the city’s noise code have been so effective. He has instituted Operation Silent Night, which focuses on car alarms and nightclub noise; according to Ted Rueter, executive director of Noise Free America, Operation Silent Night targets twenty-four high-noise neighborhoods with “intensive enforcement measures.” Bloomberg is also expanding restrictions on barking dogs, noisy air-conditioning units, late-night and weekend construction activity, and ice-cream-truck soundtracks, in addition to working to allow police to use a “plainly audible” standard against noise violators, instead of relying on noise meters.

One ex–New Yorker who now lives in Boston has noticed the difference. Michael Ebeid told Noise Free America in 2004, “I previously lived in New York City … but Boston’s noise pollution is much, much worse … New York City has passed an ordinance prohibiting car honking in residential areas, which is enforced effectively. Boston should do the same.”

Another city with a bad noise reputation, Chicago, has its own ordinances that keep decibels in check. Consider this one: car stereos that can be heard from fifty feet away are subject to confiscation and a $615 fine.

More Than an Annoyance
Such ordinances are necessary, because noise pollution is more than inconvenient—it also poses a danger to public and environmental health.

According to the World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Community Noise, noise pollution’s adverse effects on individuals include hearing impairment and interferences with spoken communication, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disturbances due to stress, acceleration and intensification of mental disorders, and increased likelihood of negative social behavior and annoyance reactions. That’s all a very elaborate way of saying too much incessant noise stresses us out. We need some quiet, and we’re not getting very much, especially if we live in urban settings.

In April 2001, as part of International Noise Awareness Day, hearing-focused organizations used sound meters to record sound levels across the United States, and published their outcomes in the U.S. magazine The Hearing Journal. On the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, New Haven, and Fort Lauderdale, the reporters regularly recorded very high decibel (dB) readings. A siren in San Francisco was the highest reading, at 120 dB; the majority of sounds registered at above 100 dB. That’s loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage after fifteen minutes.

Noise pollution has negative environmental effects, too: Birds, bats, and marine animals (in port cities) rely on sounds for communication and echolocation. When too much noise messes up their signals, it puts their lives in danger.

The City of Noise
Regardless of where your town ranks on the Men’s Health list, there’s no doubt that noise pollution is an integral part of city life. We need to embrace that but also learn to protect ourselves against it. Buy a pair of noise-canceling headphones, turn off the television and stereo for an hour a day, and take some time to appreciate the quiet whenever you can.
First published February 2010