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POLICY Table of Contents   
Year : 2000  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 1-8
Noise : Combating a ubiquitous and hazardous pollutant

Council on the Environment, New York, USA

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With a growing body of data suggesting a link between noise and adverse mental and physical health and with noise pollution becoming even more pervasive, especially from the rapid increase in air travel and highway traffic, individuals worldwide are forging alliances to combat this hazardous pollutant. Especially active are the anti-aircraft noise groups. In the United States, the federal government has limited its responsibilities with respect to noise control after an initial interest in the 1970s when legislation was passed promising to protect the American people against the harmful effects of noise. These past years anti-noise activists in the United States have been working arduously to urge the federal government to once again take an active role in abating and controlling noise. They have also been enlisting more citizens to their cause as they educate them to the hazards of noise.

Keywords: anti-noise activism, U.S. noise legislation, noise education

How to cite this article:
Bronzaft AL. Noise : Combating a ubiquitous and hazardous pollutant. Noise Health 2000;2:1-8

How to cite this URL:
Bronzaft AL. Noise : Combating a ubiquitous and hazardous pollutant. Noise Health [serial online] 2000 [cited 2022 Jan 22];2:1-8. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2000/2/6/1/31738

  Noise and Hearing Top

We have known for a long time, that continuous exposure to very loud sounds may damage hearing (Kryter, 1994; Fay, 1991). It has been estimated that approximately 28 million Americans are afflicted with some hearing loss and about ten million of these impairments are the result of loud sounds (National Institutes of Health, 1990). At one time loud sounds were generally confined to the workplace and that is why government regulations were promulgated to protect workers in noisy factories and plants. However, despite such protections, Nakai (1999) warns that new noisy workshops in Japan "...are becoming the new hot beds for outbreaks of noise-induced hearing loss." Today noise is no longer confined largely to workplaces and many young people are listening to extremely loud sounds on their headsets, at discos, at the movies and in video arcades. Downs, noted American noise expert, testified in 1988 at a U.S. Public Hearing on the health goals for the year 2000. She was quoted in the Rocky Mountain News as saying: "...that baby boomers whose teenage summers revolved around rock concerts aren't hearing as well as they used to, and their children are repeating their mistakes." (Newcomer, 1988). Representative of this "baby boomer" group is U.S. President Bill Clinton, also a musician, who now wears hearing aids in both of his ears in order to hear the questions at crowded press conferences.

More recently research has indicated that infants in neonatal intensive care units exposed to continuous noises may suffer some hearing loss as well as disruptions in development (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1997). This problem of exposure to noises in neonatal units was also addressed by Shashaty when she noted that such children "...have a much higher percentage of hyperactivity and attention problems in later childhood (Adkins, 1998). Nadler, after measuring children's toys in the range of 110­150 dBA (Nadler, 1997), and recognising the potential harm to children who play with these toys, has committed the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York City to a campaign that will press the Consumer Product Safety Commission to address the loudness of toys.

Non-Auditory Effects of Noise

Noise does not have to be loud to be harmful. A dripping faucet, a neighbour's blaring television set, an overhead jet - all may cause stress to the body's system. If sustained over time, this stress may lead to physical ailments. The studies relating noise to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and other physiological disorders are still primarily correlational in nature, demanding more rigorous research for validation, but they are suggestive of the harmful health effects of noise (Kryter, 1985; 1994; Fay, 1991; Passchier­Vermeer, 1993; Tempest, 1985).

Children have been identified as especially vulnerable to the growing noises around them (Evans and Lepore 1993; Evans, Hygge, and Bullinger, 1995). These studies report that children living and attending schools near airports have elevated blood pressure. However, members of the U.S. Federal Interagency Committee on Aircraft Noise (FICAN)have been dismissive of these findings of increased changes in blood pressure in children, stating that the findings are difficult to interpret and not really representative of longitudinal investigations (Noise Regulation Report, 1998). Even if we were to give credence to FICAN's criticisms, shouldn't we still be concerned that children are being exposed to conditions that elicit stress and physiological markers that foretell potential disorders?

Individuals who live beneath noisy overhead jets report that noise interferes with their sleep (Bronzaft, 1998). Whereas the data in this study and others (Pollak, 1991) have not yet confirmed long-term health effects of noise-induced sleep, the sleep literature does conclude that noise disrupts night time rest. Such noise disruptions may interfere with task performance (Pollak, 1991) and quality of life (Bronzaft, 1998).

The data on the adverse impact of noise on children's cognitive, learning, and language skills appear to be strong. Children exposed to noisy households have been found to be slower in cognitive and language development and children living in homes or attending schools within air flight paths or adjacent to railways and highways have lower reading scores (Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Bronzaft, 1981; Cohen et al, 1973; Evans and Maxwell, 1997; Hambrick­Dixon, 1986; Wachs and Gruen, 1982). The study by Bronzaft (1981) also supported the proposition that when noise is abated, the children's reading scores improve. The children in these studies were not suffering from hearing impairments and it should be noted that for the hearing-impaired child, a noisy school setting would be even more problematic.

Noise also robs children of the requisite peace and solace that is good for learning and for development in general. In the book Top of the Class, Bronzaft (1996) discusses interviews with high academic achievers later in their lives. They remembered growing up in homes that were quieter and favourable to reading, listening, and studying. They did not recall blaring televisions and stereos, so much more common in homes today, or screaming and shouting parents. Rather their parents provided quieter living quarters and practised quieter ways of disciplining them and their siblings.

Noise: A Partner in Uncivil Behaviour

That noise also makes one angry has been substantiated by the literature as well as anecdotal stories in the press (Bronzaft and Santa Maria, 1984). The media have frequently reported on nasty confrontations between neighbours or between citizens and police officers over noisy incidents. Apparently at the root of these situations is something called "rudeness." Certain behaviours should be dictated by common courtesies on the part of a community's residents - keeping one's music low, restraining barking dogs, not honking horns except when necessary, restricting the use of loud leaf blowers- but they are not. Although there are laws on the books to maintain some "peace and quiet" in local communities, it has become increasingly more difficult for law officers to still the noises that result from discourteous behaviour. For one reason, police officers don't place the breaking of "noise" laws high on their priority list and thus don't respond to calls immediately. Secondly, when they do respond, many times the noises have been abated, only to start up again after the police officers leave. Maybe law enforcement agents would be more respectful of noise laws if they realised that citizens who get away with breaking some laws become more reckless when it comes to heeding other laws. On the other hand, we should not depend solely on legislation to instill civility - respect for others should be taught in homes, religious institutions and schools.

Noises have also been symptomatic of more serious crimes and for this reason alone law enforcement agents should pay more attention to the problem. Loud noises coming from a household may be indicative of a family member abusing a spouse, child or elderly relative. Police officers should be mindful that unstable homes may also be very noisy homes and be alert for a crime being committed against a helpless person behind a "not so quiet door." In New York City where most of the drug dealing has been pushed from the streets into buildings (Blair, 1999), neighbours have found that these buildings have become noisier. Drug dealers who take over buildings often engage in a great deal of noise making - playing music too loudly, having customers run up and down the stairwells at all hours of the night, engaging in whistles and other all-clear signals.

So What Are the Citizens Doing About the Noise? They Are Speaking Out Against the Noise

In the past many people who were bothered by noise thought they were especially sensitive to noise or that they could do nothing to lower the decibel level; still others protected themselves from the noise by moving to quieter surroundings. Today a third group of citizens has come to the forefront. These citizens believe that they should not be subjected to unreasonable noises from planes above, neighbours next door, or discos below. They are becoming more vocal about noise - noise from neighbours, planes, auto traffic, construction. To support this statement is the finding that in 1998 noise was the number one complaint to New York City's Quality of Life Hot Line by a strong margin and in February 1996 the Federal Environmental Agency in Germany reported that two out of three of its citizens have complained about excessive noise.

Zaner (1991) reported that over forty million residents in the United States are disturbed by traffic noise, with fourteen million of them complaining about aircraft noise. She referred to a National Academy of Sciences (1977) report for these statistics and, unquestionably, the rapid increase in air travel and highway traffic these past twenty years will have increased the numbers of people bothered by transportation noises.

The Internet has enabled citizens from all parts of the world to communicate with each other about their noise problems. Individuals are no longer reluctant to express their dislike of loud music or their neighbour's noisy leaf blower. These individuals also take comfort in the fact that many others share their dislike of noise. When U.S News and World Report published a cover story on noise and hearing, many readers wrote in applauding the magazine for recognising noise as a serious global problem (U.S. News & World Report, June 21, 1999).

Citizens Are Taking a Stand Against the Noise Pollutant

In response to the increase in air traffic, local groups have sprung up in United States cities, and smaller towns as well, to combat aircraft noise and many of these groups have joined together to form a national coalition, U.S.Citizens Aviation Watch (US-CAW). In turn, US-Caw has forged alliances with anti­aircraft-noise groups around the world.

In New York City, the League for Hard of Hearing has spearheaded, with partners worldwide, International Noise Awareness Day (INAD) that falls on the last Wednesday in April. As part of INAD in 1999, citizens were asked to write to their public officials urging them to introduce legislation to lessen the impact of noise. A Community Noise Survey was distributed by the INAD participants so that citizens could express their feelings and attitudes about noise, as well as provide information on how their legislators were responding to their noise complaints. The League is presently analysing the data from this survey and will share the findings with communities in the United States and abroad.

At a local level, the Borough President of Staten Island in New York City provided funds for a study on the impact of aircraft noise on residents who live within the path of Newark Airport's airplanes. Residents of Staten Island have long complained about aircraft noise and they played a significant role in persuading the Borough President to fund this study.

Citizens are not simply protesting against the growth of noises in their environment; they are learning to advocate on behalf of a quieter, less noisy society. Traditionally noises appeared to be more prevalent in large, bustling urban communities. However, noises from aircraft, highways, railroads, watercraft, leaf blowers, to name some of the sources, are now commonplace in smaller towns and suburban areas. Individuals who once believed they could escape from the noise now fear that the noises may follow them when they move from one residence to another. Even the American national parks have been overwhelmed by the noise of sightseeing planes and helicopters (Janoff, 1994).

Anti-Aircraft Noise Groups: The Engine Piloting the Noise Issue

With so many communities in the United States being affected by intrusive noises, it is not surprising that numerous anti-noise groups have formed to lower the surrounding decibel levels. Of course, the anti-aircraft-noise groups appear to be better organised and very active on the federal level, as well as the local level. With the increase in air travel and the expansion of airports, people who have lived near major airports for years have found that the noise has worsened. Furthermore, communities that were not affected by aircraft noise, because the major airports were not located near their areas, have now found that smaller airports near their homes, that at one time only housed a few planes, have grown larger. Corporate leaders, public officials, and entertainment personalities are among the growing numbers of individuals who land their private jets in smaller airports near major cities. It is not unusual for these people to travel to the larger cities by helicopter, another source of noise. Thus more and more residents are adversely impacted by aircraft noise. We could say that the anti-aircraft-noise groups are the "engine" that is propelling the issue of noise to the forefront. Members of the anti-aircraft-noise groups have become very knowledgeable in dealing with legislators and in enlisting the support of environmental groups, as well as organisations concerned with hearing and health, in their cause. They also understand that aircraft noise is only one of the pollutants generated by airplanes and have joined in with other groups who are specialists in air and water pollution. In this way they have increased strength as they attempt to educate public officials that airport expansion cannot go forward without recognising the harm this growth imposes on individuals living near airports.

The Federal Government Remains Silent on Noise Control

Anti-noise groups, including those focusing on air travel, have a difficult road ahead because the federal government, for the most part, has been lax in noise control. Anti-aircraft-noise groups have found that The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), charged with regulating aircraft noise, has not adequately protected them from the overhead noises. The FAA's primary interests - promoting air transportation and air travel safety. The Noise Control Act of 1972 had promised to protect American citizens from the harmful effects of noise, delegating this responsibility to the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) of the Environmental Protection Agency (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1980). However, in 1982 former President Ronald Reagan stripped ONAC of its funding and President Bill Clinton and the United States Congress have seen fit to continue this policy.

Although ONAC did not have the right to regulate aircraft noise, under an amended section of the Noise Control Act the FAA was required to consult with the Environmental Protection Agency on the issue of aircraft noise. Shapiro (1991) believed ONAC had some influence on FAA's regulation of aircraft noise because it drew attention to the issue; something that is now lacking. ONAC made significant contributions in other areas as well: it established noise emission standards for several categories of transportation and construction equipment, required labelling of noise emission levels on products such as household appliances, provided technical assistance to states, and published and distributed excellent educational materials on the harmful effects of noise.

Two federal governmental agencies are concerned with noise; namely, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates noise with respect to the safety of workers, and the Housing and Urban Development Department sets some noise standard regulations as well. However, it was ONAC that was primarily charged with overseeing the noise activities that affected the quality of life of American citizens. Although the fifty states and local communities can monitor certain kinds of noise, it is the federal government that can limit noises from major sources, e. g. transportation. Furthermore the states and local authorities depend on the federal government for assistance in their noise curtailment efforts. Then why did Reagan close the federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control? Even more pointedly, why have the Clinton/Gore administration and the present Congress decided to sustain this position, robbing citizens of their right to be protected from a pollutant that could harm their health and welfare.

Certainly the federal government did not step out of the "noise business" because the problem lessened nor was it encouraged to do so by two reports that were commissioned to evaluate the status of noise. In one report Shapiro (1991), acknowledging ONAC's successes with noise control, as well as its limitations, and the growth of noise pollution, concluded: "The NCA's goals of a quieter country does not deserve the irresponsible treatment that Congress and EPA gave it." Suter (1991), the author of the second report, discusses the World Health Organisation's definition of noise as a health issue and reports on those studies that find noise is harmful to mental and physical health. She then concludes: "Noise has a significant impact on the quality of American life."

One would have to entertain other hypotheses to explain the American government's cavalier attitude toward noise control and abatement. One hypothesis might centre upon the beneficiaries of the government's loss of interest in noise abatement - business and industry, especially the airlines and aircraft manufacturers. Passenger air travel has grown greatly in the past twenty years and it is expected that "...international passenger traffic will double by 2010, and domestic passenger traffic will double within the next 20 years. (Stenzel, J. 1996). Even though there have been advances in engine technology that have quieted the aircraft somewhat, the pace of this technology has not kept up with the increase in air travel, nor is it expected to keep up with the projected increases in traffic (Fusco, June 23, 1999). It is doubtful that the air transportation industry would allow noise controls that might slow down its growth and, undoubtedly, it has expressed and will continue to communicate its concerns to Congress and the United States President. The same could be said for other industries that might believe that noise control would limit profit-making.

The recent overwhelming vote by the House of Representatives, one of two bodies that make up the U.S. Congress, to support the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century is just one bit of evidence of the strong hold that the air transportation industry has on the American Congress. (Wald, June 16, 1999). This legislation will provide airports and air traffic control with more than fifty seven billion dollars over five years starting in the year 2001. This Act also removes some airport flight limits, allowing start-up airlines to compete with major airlines, which will increase airport capacity, and in turn, increase noise over affected communities. On October 5, 1999 the Senate, the second Congressional body, endorsed the actions of the House of Representatives. After both bodies approve legislation, it is then passed on to the U.S. President for his signature and it is expected that he will give his approval.

Can Citizen Groups Rekindle the Interest of the United States Government in Noise?

With "big business" having the wherewithal to pressure legislators, what are the chances that citizen groups with limited resources will be able to neutralise this influence and lessen the surrounding din that is harming their health and that of their children? Ordinary American citizens, however, have the reputation of challenging powerful companies, with the underdog many times leaving the "ring" as the victor. One inkling that anti-aircraft noise groups are making headway is the fact that members of airline alliances are taking the time to criticise these citizen groups, acknowledging their presence and vitality. Another example speaking to the strength of the anti-noise movement is the recent passage of an amendment in the House of Representatives that would allot thirty million dollars for the further study of the reduction of jet noise. (Havlik, May 27, 1999). This bill was introduced by two congressmen from Queens, New York City where the citizen opposition to the aircraft noise emanating from New York's major airports clearly swayed their Congressional representatives.

Anti-noise advocates and noise researchers have enlisted the media in their efforts to highlight the harmful effects of noise, with two recent examples being the cover stories in U.S. News and World Report (Kulman, April 26, 1999) and USA Today (Davis, May 4, 1999). With the media attending to the dangers of noise, public officials will be forced to respond more assertively to the noise problem - a favourable indicator for anti-noise activists. American politicians are known to be especially sensitive to issues that attract the media.

For the past three years, one member of the House of Representatives and one member of the Senate have introduced bills that would refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC). This legislation was introduced at the urging of two anti-aircraft noise groups, New Jersey Citizens Against Aircraft Noise (NJCAAN) and New York's Sane Aviation for Everyone (SAFE). With a grant that I received, that was administered by The League for Hard of Hearing, we were given the opportunity to write to all members of Congress to educate them on the dangers of noise and the need for some federal oversight. Although several members of Congress supported our efforts to refund ONAC by signing on as co-sponsors of the legislation, we were not able to get the entire Congressional body to vote for these bills.

However, I can conclude on a positive note and say that citizens in the United States are gaining ground in their battle against noise pollution. They appear to be making some inroads in Washington, as well as locally. Working together with anti-noise citizen groups nationwide, the League for the Hard of Hearing's efforts to educate legislators did lead to a small victory. Attached to the Senate bill that provides the Federal Aviation Administration with its funding for the next fiscal year was an item that called for the study of airport noise and its impacts on health and children's learning. Asking for research to be carried out is no assurance that it will be conducted in the appropriate way but it is a step in the right direction. Yet it is still hoped that the Congress will be motivated in the near future to reopen the Office of Noise Abatement and Control; thus validating noise as a critical concern.[38]

  References Top

1.Adkins, C. L. (September 28, 1998). Alarming: Findings of hospital noise studies are loud and clear. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 30-31.  Back to cited text no. 1    
2. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Environmental Health. (1997). Noise: A hazard for the fetus and newborn. Pediatrics, 724-727.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Blair, J. (June 17, 1999). Striking drug bosses, not street dealers, pays off, the police say. The New York Times, B16.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Bronzaft, A. L., Ahern, K. D, McGinn, R. O'Connor, J. & Savino, B. (1998). Aircraft noise: A potential health hazard. Environment and Behaviour, 30, 101-113.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Bronzaft, A. L. (1996). Top of the Class. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Bronzaft, A. L. & Santa Maria, C. (1984). Noise annoys, but it also masks crime and incites violence. Law Enforcement News, 15, 8.  Back to cited text no. 6    
7.Bronzaft, A. L. (1981). The effect of a noise abatement program on reading ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1, 215-222.  Back to cited text no. 7    
8.Bronzaft, A. L. & McCarthy, D. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behaviour, 7, 517-528.  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Cohen, S., Glass, D. C. & Singer, J. D. (1973). Apartment noise, auditory discrimination and reading ability in children. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 9, 407-422.  Back to cited text no. 9    
10.Davis, R. (May 4, 1999). Deafening roar about aircraft. USA Today, D1-2.  Back to cited text no. 10    
11.Evans, G. W., Hygge, S. & Bullinger, M. (1995). Chronic noise and psychological stress. Psychological Science, 6, 333-338.  Back to cited text no. 11    
12.Evans, G. W. & Lepore, S. J. (1993). Nonauditory effects of noise on children. A critical review. Children's Environments, 10, 31-51.  Back to cited text no. 12    
13.Evans, G. W. & Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading deficits: The mediating effects of language acquisition. Environment and Behaviour, 29, 638-656.  Back to cited text no. 13    
14.Fay, T.H. (Ed.) (1991). Noise and health. New York: The Academy of Medicine.  Back to cited text no. 14    
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16.Hambrick-Dixon, P. J. (1986). Effects of experimentally imposed noise on task performance of black children attending day care centres near elevated subway trains. Developmental Psychology, 22, 259-264.  Back to cited text no. 16    
17.Havlik, D. (May 27, 1999). Weiner and Crowley allot $30M for airport noise reduction study. Queens Chronicle, p.1, p.18.  Back to cited text no. 17    
18.Janoff, L. (July 3, 1995). Crunch time at the canyon. Time, 40-41.  Back to cited text no. 18    
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23.Nakai, Y. (1999). Noise-induced hearing loss. Hearing Rehabilitation Bimonthly, 24, 12-13  Back to cited text no. 23    
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25.National Institutes of Health. (1990). Noise and Hearing Loss Consensus Conference, JAMA, 263, 3185-3190.  Back to cited text no. 25    
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27.Noise Regulation Report (April 1998), Children and noise a concern at FICAN meeting. Silver Spring, MD., Business Publishers, Inc. p.31.  Back to cited text no. 27    
28.Passchier-Vermeer, W. (1993). Noise and health. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands.  Back to cited text no. 28    
29.Pollak, C. P. (1991) The effects of noise on sleep. In T. H. Fay (Ed.) Noise and health. New York: The New York Academy of Medicine.  Back to cited text no. 29    
30.Shapiro, S. A. (1991). The dormant noise control act and options to abate noise pollution. Washington, D. C. The Administrative Conference of the United States.  Back to cited text no. 30    
31.Stenzel, J. (1996) Flying off course: Environmental impacts of America's airports. New York, Natural Resources Defence Council.  Back to cited text no. 31    
32.Suter, A. H. (1991). Noise and its effects. Washington, D.C.: The Administrative Conference of the United States.  Back to cited text no. 32    
33.Tempest, W. (Ed.). (1985). The noise handbook. London: Academic Press. U. S. News & World Report (June 21, 1999), Letters, p. 8.  Back to cited text no. 33    
34.U.S. News & World Report (June 21, 1999) Letters, p.9.  Back to cited text no. 34    
35.United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Noise Abatement and Control. (April 1980). Noise Control Program: Progress to Date - 1980. Washington, D.C. EPA.  Back to cited text no. 35    
36.Wachs, T. & Gruen, G. (1982). Early experience and human development. New York: Plenum.  Back to cited text no. 36    
37.Wald, M. L. (June 16, 1999). The New York Times, B5.  Back to cited text no. 37    
38.Zaner, A. (1991). Definition and sources of noise. In T. H. Fay (Ed.). Noise and health New York: The New York Academy of Medicine.  Back to cited text no. 38    

Correspondence Address:
Arline L Bronzaft
Council on the Environment, 505 East 79 Street #8B, New York NY 10021
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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