by Jeff Meredith

Science Metropolis

June 2, 2008

“America is the noisiest country that ever existed. One is waked up in the morning, not by the singing of the nightingale, but by the steam whistle. It is not surprising that the sound practical sense of the American does not reduce this intolerable noise.” – Oscar Wilde’s Impressions of America (1883)

America has evolved in noisier ways than Oscar Wilde could have ever imagined and the singing of any bird can be drowned out. In its place, one will hear car alarms, police sirens, motorcycles, jackhammers, and stereo systems as loud as jet planes. Urban settings, in particular, subject residents to potentially harmful levels of noise. Local governments are increasingly being pressured by city residents to either enforce existing noise ordinances or put new laws into effect that turn down the volume.

Normal conversations occur at a level of 50-70 decibels, but many sounds in our environment are far above that level. And the consequences can be dire. Prolonged exposure to sound above 85 decibels may cause permanent hearing loss. Motorcycles commonly eclipse 85 decibels (at 65 miles per hour, they surpass 110 decibels), while small firecrackers can reach 100-110 decibels. Ambulance and police sirens fall in the 110-120 decibel range, and if you have poor enough judgment to attend a rock concert, you could experience 140 decibels. These sounds are staples of the urban experience. Out of the 28 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, one-third damaged their hearing through excessive exposure to sound.

Noise and Health Effects

Exposure to noise can do much more than make you deaf. There is a growing body of literature indicating that noise exposure can induce hypertension and ischemic heart disease, annoyance, sleep disturbance, and decreased school performance. Traffic noise has been shown to cause considerable disturbance and annoyance in exposed subjects. Evidence linking noise to changes in the immune system and birth defects is more limited, however.

Children, as a group, could be more vulnerable to noise because of its ability to interfere with learning at a critical developmental stage and because children have “less capacity than adults do to anticipate, understand and cope with stressors.” A 2005 study of nearly 3200 children in Europe, aged 9-10, found that a chronic environmental stressor – like aircraft noise – could impair cognitive development in children, specifically reading comprehension.

Numerous studies by Cornell University environmental psychologist Gary Evans have found that automobile traffic and jet aircraft noise have a particularly harmful impact on children. In 2001, Evans and European researchers found that “even the low-level but chronic noise of everyday local traffic can cause stress in children and raise blood pressure, heart rates and levels of stress hormones.” Elevated blood pressure in childhood often precedes higher blood pressure later in life, and increasing levels of stress hormones have been linked to the adult onset of elevated lipids and cholesterol, heart disease and a decline in disease-fighting immune cells. In a 2002 study, Evans and his colleagues found that excessive noise – as produced by jet aircraft flying overhead – impairs reading ability and long term memory in children. A 1993 study by Evans concluded that noise pollution impairs task performance at school and that cognitive development is impaired when homes or schools are near sources of noise such as airports and highways.

More recent studies have sought to build on Evans’ findings. In 2008, a study investigated the effects of urban road noise on children’s blood pressure and heart rate. The cross-sectional study – of 328 children who attended 10 public kindergartens in Belgrade – found a significant correlation between noise exposure and children’s systolic pressure, the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (and the top number in a blood pressure reading). Heart rate was also significantly higher (2 beats/minute on average) in children from noisy residences, compared with children from quieter homes. The results of epidemiological studies on the relationship between road traffic noise and hypertension in adults have not been consistent, but several have revealed significant relative risks for hypertension.

Noise contributes to disturbances in mental health. It may cause or contribute to anxiety, stress, argumentativeness, nausea, headache, nervousness and a host of other adverse health effects. Noise levels above 80 decibels have even been associated with an increase in aggressive behavior.

The Sounds of an American City: People

The Washington, DC neighborhood of Capitol Hill is a hotbed for protesters and street preachers who not only like to shout their opinions, but amplify them – at a level often surpassing 90 decibels. “There are no regulations for amplified, noncommercial speech between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.,” says resident turned noise activist David Klavitter, who notes that this loophole “allows people to use amplifiers as a weapon. They’re not content using speech to influence or persuade; they’re using the sheer brute force of noise to harass people into submission.” Klavitter and other DC residents bothered by the din have urged the city council to limit noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 70 decibels. Under their proposal, fines would be assessed for louder speech, as measured 50 feet from its source. And eventually, DC activists want to be even stricter than measuring sound from 50 feet away. “We’ve offered some amendments like a property line or occupied residence provision. If someone sets up (an amplifier) underneath the window of someone’s house, they could be at 90 decibels,” says Klavitter. “A property line or occupied residence decibel level would provide additional protection for residents in DC. In an open field, you can be as loud as you want. But once the sound hits a property line where it will impact someone else, there should be limits.”

The Sounds of an American City: Motorcycles

Cities like New York and Denver are asking motorcyclists to pipe down – and now this request has some teeth. As of July 1, riders in New York are subject to a $440 fine for having a muffler or exhaust system which can be heard from 200 feet. On that same day, a Denver law went into effect stipulating that motorcyclists will be fined $500 for putting alternate mufflers – not made by the original manufacturer and often intentionally louder – on their bikes. “Motorcyclists have to demonstrate that they have the original muffler on it and have not tampered with it. They define excessive noise as being above 82 decibels – it’s a pretty strict standard,” said Ted Rueter, executive director of Noise Free America. Other cities have followed in New York and Denver’s wake; in August, the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania informed motorcycle enthusiasts that they could be ticketed for producing too much noise – either via revving of their engines or rapid acceleration. All motorcycles sold in the U.S. are already subject to a federal noise law – mandating that they not exceed 80 decibels from 50 feet away – so city laws are adding an extra layer of protection.

The Sounds of an American City: Boom Cars

Equipped with extremely powerful stereo systems cranked at full blast, boom cars represent a relatively recent noise menace in urban environments. The human pain threshold for noise is 120 decibels, but these cars can hit 150 decibels – the equivalent of standing next to a 747 with its jet engines running. “Today’s boom cars are nothing if not acoustic terrorism,” Rueter wrote in a 2002 column for the Los Angeles Times.

Cities are certainly taking notice and cracking down on boom cars. In Chicago, boom cars that can be heard from 75 feet are subject to seizure and owners can be fined $615. Similarly, in Peoria, Illinois police are able to impound cars which can be heard from that distance. The city of Sarasota, Florida is currently using Peoria as a model as it crafts its new noise ordinance. City commissioners are examining a proposal where first time offenders would receive a written warning and a second offense would result in $175 worth of fines and fees, as well as vehicle impoundment. Not everyone is a fan of these measures; a Sarasota city commissioner argued that the proposal was “biased, anti-poor, and anti-people of color.” Proponents argue that the measure will not target black communities – just those who are failing to comply.

Even small towns have crusaders against boom cars. Mike Smith, a resident of Pulaski, a community of 10,000 in the western part of Virginia, recalls the repetitive passing of these vehicles on his street beginning in 1995. “We would have 50 boom cars an hour,” Smith said. “I’d have such stress headaches. I’d be nauseated, sick to my stomach. I’d be shaking all over because of the anger and stress they brought on me.” While Pulaski had a noise ordinance prohibiting any sound that could be heard from 25 feet away, enforcement was lax. “Starting in 2003, we tried everything for three years to get the police to enforce the noise ordinance,” said Smith. “We came to the conclusion that until the police department was educated on the adverse health and safety effects of noise on the community, they weren’t going to do anything.” Smith went online and found articles relating to noise and its health effects; he e-mailed articles to the police chief, who printed them out and soon had a “stack to the ceiling.”

Police department awareness translated into action. The department soon allowed Smith and his neighbors to “take down tag numbers and vehicle descriptions and the time and date” of an infraction. Based on the vehicle data collected, the police department would send warning letters to first time offenders; in many cases, the guilty parties were teenagers who would be disciplined by their parents. “The letter campaign curbed about 50 percent of the booming,” said Smith, who has noticed a significant improvement as of late.

The Sounds of an American City: Police

The greatest irony of the boom car crackdown is that police are often competing – with the very people they’re ticketing – for top noise pollution honors. And it’s not just sirens that they’re utilizing. They’re now producing the same type of heavy bass output which is associated with boom cars. Increasingly, police departments are using a technology called the “rumbler.” Similar to a subwoofer, a rumbler emits a low-pitched baritone signal that lasts 15 seconds and accompanies the usual lights and sirens. You not only see the police car in your rear-view mirror – now you can feel it vibrating from 200 feet away. The idea is to allow police cars to better navigate through traffic and grab the attention of people who cannot already hear their 110 decibel sirens.

49 police cars in Washington, DC are already equipped with the device, and there are plans to introduce the rumbler to the city’s entire fleet (767 patrol cars) within four years. “In addition to the high pitch yelp or wail, you have this low, ominous rumble that you can hear in your house or car. I can hear it in my house,” says DC resident Klavitter. “They’ve had to ratchet up their noise in order to ensure our public safety. It’s a comment on our society that we keep getting louder and louder.” Noise Free America’s Rueter expressed disappointment with the growing use of rumblers. “Why do they need this equipment to try to overcome and overpower the din of ambient noise levels?” he asked. “Instead of trying to do something about noise and enforce existing ordinances, they need something louder apparently.”

The Sounds of an American City: Music Clubs

In September 2006, Tampa police made their first arrest under a new city noise ordinance which institutes harsher penalties for nightclub and bar managers who exceed noise limits. After a dance club called Amphitheatre exceeded the entertainment district’s limit for bass (101 decibels, 14 over the 87 decibel limit), the club’s manager was arrested and charged with a second-degree misdemeanor. The manager faced the possibility of a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. Similarly, in June 2007, two managers of Club Fuel, a hip hop club, were arrested after the club violated the city’s noise ordinance for the fourth time.

Tampa isn’t the only city that has gotten tough with music clubs. In 2006, Minneapolis cited the Trocaderos Nightclub for violations on five occasions. However, the club argued that the violations were based on vague resident opinions – rather than sound measurement – and a judge agreed, ruling that the city’s noise ordinance was unconstitutional. City officials will now have to rewrite the ordinance, with an eye toward measuring violations with a decibel meter.

A 1998 study, published in the Journal of Industrial Medicine, surveyed 31 music club employees and measured the sound levels in their work environment, which ranged from 94.9 to 106.7 decibels. Despite being in such a loud setting, only one-sixth of the employees regularly reported using hearing protection. The study concluded that music club employees are at substantial risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss due to chronic noise exposure above safe limits.

Federal Leadership Lacking Since the Dawn of the Reagan Administration; State and Local Authorities Draw Up Their Own Rules

There is no universal standard when it comes to noise regulation in this country; state and local authorities come up with their own noise codes. For 27 years now, the federal government has been a nonentity in the realm of noise abatement. This wasn’t always the case.

In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act (NCA) and hoped to “promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes health or welfare.”While acknowledging the role of state and local authorities in regulating noise, the act concluded that federal intervention was required in some cases. A newly established Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took the lead in federal noise abatement activities. ONAC set noise emission standards and regulations for products such as motorcycles, motor homes, trucks, construction equipment, etc. ONAC also provided information to the public about the harmful effects of noise and methods to control it, while directing federal research and activities in noise control. Throughout the 1970s, the EPA assisted communities in designing local ordinances, noise surveying, and training noise enforcement officers.

But industry interests brought this age of progress to a close and ONAC lost its funding with the dawn of the Reagan administration in 1981. “Maybe President Nixon did better with this noise issue because (his daughter) Trish was my student,” jokes Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who has been studying the effects of noise on public health for nearly 40 years and currently chairs the noise committee for the Mayor of New York’s Council on the Environment. “We see that Ford carries forward on these acts, Carter carried through. And then we got Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a disaster.” As Ted Reuter notes, “There’s a reason we no longer have ONAC. The noise industrial complex: so many economic interests that are pro-noise and do not want their noise restricted.”

Since 1997, New York congresswoman Nita Lowey has repeatedly introduced the Quiet Communities Act, which would reauthorize ONAC to “coordinate federal noise abatement activities, provide technical assistance to local communities, update or develop new noise standards, and promote research and education on the impacts of noise pollution.” The bill would also direct the EPA to study the impact of aircraft noise on major metropolitan areas and recommend new FAA measures to mitigate noise impacts.

Lowey’s legislation has gone nowhere, and it’s telling that the type of research she proposes will only find funding in Europe. Since 1981, Bronzaft says there has been no point in approaching the federal government for grant money to study noise and health effects. “I would go to NIH and try there, but have a hard time,” says Bronzaft. “I don’t think I’d get it. They don’t want to do noise studies, definitely not noise and aircraft studies.” Bronzaft notes that Cornell environmental psychologist Gary Evans must find funding for his studies among European groups: f.e., the Nordic Scientific Group for Noise Effects, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the German Research Foundation, the National Swedish Institute for Building Research, and the Austrian Ministry of Science and Transportation.

To make matters worse, the US federal agencies that should most concern themselves with noise and its health effects are turning a blind eye to academia’s findings. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “was going to publish a paper saying there were no studies linking children’s learning to noise,” said Bronzaft, who has dubbed the agency “Friends of Airlines and Airports.”

New York City: A Model Noise Ordinance

In the federal leadership vacuum, cities are taking it upon themselves to address noise problems. Realizing that New York City’s noise code was over three decades old and in need of a tune-up, leaders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced major revisions that brought the city into the modern age. The exhaustive code, which went into effect last July, addresses everything from construction noise (noise mitigation plans must accompany any development project) to bar music (if a police officer or environmental protection enforcement agent can hear noise 15 feet from the source, a ticket is issued) and barking dogs ($75-175 fine the first time a dog barks for more than 10 minutes during the day). Even Mr. Softee ice cream trucks have come under scrutiny; trucks can only play their jingle when they’re in motion, not when they’re stationary. For noise activists, New York City represents the model to strive for. “I think it really provides some strong protections for people when it comes to their rights to quiet,” said Klavitter. “Michael Bloomberg and (former mayor) Giuliani were great leaders in the fight against noise,” adds Rueter.

Noise consciousness, in one of America’s loudest cities, is a continuing theme. It was just announced that city-run hospitals will be equipping incubators in their preemie wards with sound machines which flash when noise reaches too high of a level; red lights will flash when noise surpasses more than 45 decibels. Noise consciousness is also at the elementary school level: Bronzaft has authored a children’s book about the dangers of excessive noise and it is a part of several school curriculums.

Still, there’s no telling if New York’s newly implemented plan will truly work. Bronzaft, who has consulted four New York City mayors on noise issues (Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg), points out one weakness of the code: it does not address neighbor noise. “It falls under leases that people have with their landlords and we have not updated that,” she said. “A police officer may come to an apartment because of a disturbance, but when the police leave, the noise starts up again.” Ultimately, noise-related calls to the city’s 311 hot line may reflect how well the new code is working. In 2005, there were 38,660 noise-related calls and there were 41,856 in 2006. Even with improvements to the noise code, complaints could continue to rise.

Solutions: The Story of an Activist Group and Its Origins

In 2001, UCLA political science professor Ted Rueter found himself teaching a class on political activism and he decided to walk the talk with the development of his own activist group. “I found UCLA to be the noisiest campus I had been on and LA to be the noisiest city I’d been in,” said Rueter. “I decided to do more than complain and moan. I worked with 14 students to do something about noise on UCLA’s campus.” Rueter and his students wanted to stop the jack hammering which was interfering with classes and push the majority of maintenance work to the weekends, when classes were not being held. UCLA agreed to schedule maintenance work from Saturday-Wednesday – creating quiet Thursdays and Fridays for students – and promptly stopped its midday jack hammering.

Rueter’s effort soon extended to broader Los Angeles and spawned a national organization, one which was just granted 501(c) (3) status as a tax exempt educational group. Noise Free America has 52 chapters in 25 states and an e-mail list of 1,500 individuals who are concerned about noise in their communities. “A lot of people write to us online and say I’m bothered by noise and I’m so glad to discover the existence of your organization because I thought I was the only one,” said Rueter. “Police departments try to claim you’re the only one bothered by this and a very small percentage of people who are bothered by noise bother to speak up about it. But people are realizing that there are millions of other people out there who feel the same way they do. More and more city councils are enacting much stronger noise ordinances.”

Ultimately, leaders like Mayor Bloomberg are the exception rather than the norm. It takes an organized effort among residents to demand and implement changes which will result in a less noise-saturated environment. It starts from the ground up; most politicians are not concerned about noise or educated about its health effects. So their constituents have to speak up and be heard; they have to educate their elected officials. If it takes a little kicking and screaming to get the job done, that noise is entirely forgivable.