Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague

Lisa Goines, RN; Louis Hagler, MD


South Med J. 2007;100(3):287-294. 

In This Article


Because their wheels clattered on paving stones, chariots in ancient Rome were banned from the streets at night to prevent the noise that disrupted sleep and caused annoyance to the citizens. Centuries later, some cities in Medieval Europe either banned horse drawn carriages and horses from the streets at night or covered the stone streets with straw to reduce noise and to ensure peaceful sleep for the residents.[1] In more recent times in Philadelphia, the framers of our Constitution covered nearby cobblestone streets with earth to prevent noise-induced interruptions in their important work. These examples pinpoint two major effects of noise from which men of all ages have sought relief: interruption of sleep and interference with work that requires concentration. It is interesting that noises emanating from the various types of roadways of today are still among the most important sources of environmental noise, even though the types of noise are not those that existed in Rome, Medieval Europe, or 18th century Philadelphia. Our modern roadways (including road, rail, and air) and the products of modern technology produce increasing levels of unwanted noise of varying types and intensities throughout the day and night that disturb sleep, concentration, and other functions.[4,6,12,13] This noise affects us without our being consciously aware of it. Unlike our eyes, which we can shut to exclude unwanted visual input, we cannot voluntarily shut our ears to exclude unwanted auditory input. Our hearing mechanisms are always on even when we are asleep.[2]

The noise problems of the past pale in significance when compared with those experienced by modern city dwellers; noise pollution continues to grow in extent, frequency, and severity as a result of population growth, urbanization, and technological developments.[1,4] For example, within the European Common Market, 65% of the population is exposed to unhealthy levels of transportation noise.[13] In New York City, maximum noise levels measured 106 dB on subway platforms and 112 dB inside subway cars. These levels have the potential of exceeding recommended exposure limits given sufficient duration of exposure.[14] In 1991, it was estimated that environmental noise increased by 10% in the decade of the 1980s.[3] The 2000 United States Census found that 30% of Americans complained of noise, and 11% found it to be bothersome. Among those who complained, noise was sufficiently bothersome to make nearly 40% want to change their place of residence.[15] That noise pollution continues to grow in scope, variety, and magnitude is unquestioned; it is only the extent of the growth that remains unknown.[1]

In comparison to other pollutants, the control of environmental noise has been hampered by insufficient knowledge about its effects on humans and about dose-response relationships, but this seems to be changing as more research is carried out. However, it is clear that noise pollution is widespread and imposes long-term consequences on health.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11] In 1971, a World Health Organization (WHO) working group concluded that noise is a major threat to human well-being.[3] That assessment has not changed in the intervening 30-plus years; if anything, the threat has intensified.

The various sounds in our environment (excluding all those sounds that arise in the workplace) to which we are exposed can be viewed as being either necessary (desirable) or unnecessary (undesirable). One might consider the sounds produced in and around our homes by garbage disposals, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, refrigerators, furnaces, air-conditioners, yard maintenance equipment, and the many other mechanized time-and labor-saving devices, which we all use and enjoy, as being necessary. We are exposed to the noise of radio, television, and related technologies; children are exposed to a wide variety of noisy toys.[5,16] The noise of internal combustion engines (modulated by legally required mufflers), jet engines (modulated by improved design and by altered flight paths), and train horns at grade crossings (modulated by new Federal Quiet Zone rules), might all be considered necessary. There are numerous other such examples of machines or activities that produce sounds that are tolerated because they accompany a desired activity or they serve an important societal purpose, such as the sirens of emergency vehicles.

But what about sounds that accompany an undesired activity, that have no societal importance, or that we consider unnecessary? What about the sounds produced by the so-called boom-cars that are roving, pulsating noise factories? What about the uncomfortable sound levels at concerts, in theaters, and public sporting events? What about the noise of slow-moving train horns in urbanized areas or the early morning sounds accompanying garbage collection? What about all the noise on our streets to which buses, trolley cars, car horns, car alarms, motorcycles, and unmuffled exhaust systems contribute? What about the risks to children from noisy toys and from personal sound systems? What about the noise of barking dogs, leaf blowers, and recreational vehicles? What about the noise of low flying aircraft? In general, sounds that we deem unwanted or unnecessary are considered to be noise. Our society is beset by noise, which is intrusive, pervasive, and ubiquitous; most important of all, it is unhealthy. Most reasonable people would agree that much of the environmental noise to which we are subjected serves no useful purpose and is therefore undesirable. The variety of noise polluting devices and activities is large and seems to be growing on a daily basis, although there is no consensus about what items are useful and desirable or noise polluting and unnecessary.

Domestic tranquility is one of the six guarantees in the United States Constitution, a guarantee that is echoed in some form or other in every state Constitution. In 1972, the Noise Control Act was passed by Congress, declaring, ... it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes health and welfare. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that nearly 100 million Americans lived in areas where the daily average noise levels exceeded those identified as being safe.[17] However, in 1982, the government abruptly terminated federal funding for the Office of Noise Abatement and Control, the vehicle by which the public was to be protected from the adverse effects of noise. The lack of funds threw total responsibility for noise control to the states, which have had a spotty and generally poor record with respect to noise abatement.[7,18] Since the Act itself was not repealed, local and state governments may have been deterred from trying to regulate noise. Furthermore, failure to repeal the Act sent the message that noise was not an important environmental concern.[7] As a result, in the United States, most police departments seem to be unwilling or unable to respond to noise-related problems in a way that provides any measure of genuine or timely control. Yet, in most cities, as noise pollution continues to grow-some say as much as sixfold in the past 15 years-so do complaints about noise. Complaints to police and other officials about noise are among the most frequent complaints by residents in urban environments; in 1998, noise was the number one complaint to the Quality of Life Hotline in New York City. In 1996, the Federal Environmental Agency in Germany reported two out of three of its citizens had complained about excessive noise.[18] The number of people exposed to unhealthy levels of noise in the United States is unquestionably greater than it was in 1974; the degree of oversight and control is unquestionably less.


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