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Toxins in Everyday Life - Noise Pollution

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Noise is unwanted sound. The word is derived from the Latin word nausea, meaning seasickness. Experts agree that noise pollution is bad and getting worse in America. Noise from road traffic, airplanes, jet skis, garbage trucks, construction equipment, manufacturing processes, lawn mowers, subways, and leaf blowers are just a few of the unwanted sounds that are routinely broadcast into the air. Physicists, audiologists, engineers, architects, and physicians report that permanent hearing loss caused by amplified music is a widespread affliction in the United States. Although hearing loss is the most dramatic effect of noise pollution, even smaller amounts of noise can negatively affect health and well-being. Besides hearing loss, some other problems related to noise include the following:

  • stress
  • high blood pressure
  • sleep loss
  • distraction and lost worker productivity
  • a general decline in quality of life

Noise levels are measured in decibels (db). A noise level of less than 65 db is considered acceptable from an environmental standpoint, although several studies have found that levels of 60 to 65 db are annoying to 9 percent of the public. Soft whispers have a decibel level of 30. An air conditioner at 20 feet measures 60 db. The noise level of a vacuum cleaner or a crowded restaurant is about 70 db. Average city traffic, garbage disposals, or alarm clocks at 2 feet could be 80 db. The subway, a motorcycle, or a lawn mower would be approximately 90 db; a basketball arena 108 db. A rock concert or thunderclap (120 db), a gunshot blast or jet plane (140 db), or a rocket launching pad (180 db) can be dangerous to those under constant exposure. Researchers for the EPA have found that 20 percent of the population is "highly annoyed" if sound levels reach 55 db.

Many cities have pressed the Federal Aviation Administration to steer airplane flight paths around metropolitan areas in order to reduce noise over residential areas. The airline industry has responded by beginning to build jet engines with noise levels in mind.

Legislation against Noise

The air into which noise is emitted is a "commons," or a public space. It belongs to no one person but to everyone. People, organizations, and businesses, therefore, do not have unlimited rights to broadcast noise. The United States has been slow to confront the issue of noise. At a time when European nations were addressing the issue of noise abatement, in 1981 Congress eliminated the EPA's previously allocated funds for noise programs.

The Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) of the EPA was established by the Noise Control Act of 1972 (NCA; PL 92-574). During President Ronald Reagan's administration, noise pollution came to be viewed as a local problem because noise pollution does not travel very far and quickly dissipates. Some legislators believed that state and local regulation was more efficient than federal regulation since local governments could more easily gauge and respond to noise situations in their area. Consequently, in 1981 Congress eliminated all funding for ONAC, although it did not repeal the NCA. And while many of the provisions of that original law have become outdated and obsolete, others still—technically—could be invoked, although they generally have not been.

Thus, noise pollution has fallen to state and local governments to define and regulate. Much like the federal government, most states have been slow to do so. Increasingly, however, citizens are filing lawsuits based on noise issues. People regularly file noise complaints against airports and road builders, and police often respond to noise-related neighborhood conflicts.

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