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A Call To The Legal Profession To Defend Citizens Against Noise Pollution

By Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD. Email:

The Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City has estimated that " passenger traffic will double by 2010 and domestic passenger traffic will double within the next 20 years." Whereas this potential growth in airport travel is being met with glee by the aviation industry, it is bringing distress to the millions of people who live close to airports and have to live daily with the noise from overhead jets. Similarly in community after community, residents are registering complaints that noises from recreational vehicles, highways, leafblowers, garbage collections, high speed-auto racing, and nearby discos are robbing them of the peace and quiet to which they believe they are entitled. Sadly since too little attention has been paid to noise pollution, many people find their complaints fall on "deaf ears."

When serving as an expert witness, I am often asked whether or not one person’s music is another person’s noise. This question is asked to demonstrate the difficulty of defining noise and, as a result, the problem of dealing with the issue in the courts. It is true that a particular sound may be judged as music by one person and noise by another, but we can still arrive at an acceptable definition of noise. Noise is unwanted sound and although loud sounds are commonly identified as noise, sounds that are unwanted can be as low as that of a dripping faucet or as loud as the music coming into your apartment from your neighbor’s stereo system. What also makes noise especially bothersome is that you can’t control it nor do you know when it will be invading. When the sounds come from a disliked source, such as the unpleasant neighbor next door, then the noise is even more distressing. Noises are defined as the negative evaluation of sounds that are judged to be disruptive and intrusive.

Individuals who have chosen to live in urban centers have been told that they should adapt to the loud sounds or noises around them. However, even people living in urban centers expect some relief from the outside world’s noises in the privacy of their homes. However, noises are not restricted to urban communities. Noise from aircraft and leafblowers have intruded upon the serenity of suburban communities and noise from motorboats and jet skis have shattered the tranquility of individuals who took pride in their peaceful waterfront existence. If the definition of noise as "unwanted, uncontrollable and unpredictable sound," is accepted, as is the concept that individuals are entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, then the law should focus on whether a "person of reasonable sensitivities" would be disturbed by the noise, either physiologically or psychologically.

That individuals could be mentally and physiologically affected by noise is in keeping with the Noise Control Act passed by Congress in 1972. This Act declared that it was the "policy of the United States to promote and environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardized their health or welfare." To meet this goal the Noise Control Act established Federal emission standards for products distributed in commerce, established a means for coordinating Federal research on noise, and provided information to the public on noise standards. An office, namely the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), was created in the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the impacts of noise on the general public. Other federal agencies were also given jurisdiction over some aspects of noise, e.g. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Department of Transportation, the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Federal Aviation Agency. When in 1982 the funding to ONAC was curtailed, it essentially deprived most citizens of federal protection against noise and its deleterious effects.

States and cities have their own noise ordinances but the loss of federal funding also diminished the importance of noise control at the local level. For example, New York City prides itself in having an "excellent" noise code but the code is nearly thirty years old and is not in keeping with the growth of noise problems in New York City. Resident complaints about noisy aircraft have increased tremendously in the past ten years but neither federal nor local governments have responded to these complaints in a way that has lessened the din or the discomfort of these residents.

In 1972, the federal government had acknowledged the dangers of noise to mental and physical health. Since that time we have even more data to support the link between noise and health. Of the approximately 28 million Americans affected with some hearing loss, it has been estimated that 10 million of these impairments are at least partially attributable to damage from exposure to noise. However, noise is not only damaging to the ear. Intrusive noises, e.g. your neighbor’s nightly banging above your bedroom or the roar of overhead jets, may set off a set of complex physiological responses known as stress. Should the noises continue unabated, these stress reactions such as an increase in blood pressure, a change in heart rhythm, or an excessive secretion of hormones may result in actual physiological disorders.

People living in communities near noisy airports have evidenced a higher incidence of cardiovascular and circulatory problems. Although the data on noise and these health problems are not yet solidified, they are strong enough to serve as warnings. Other research notes that residents exposed to overhead aircraft noise complain of a diminished quality of life, e.g. not being able to read, watch television, converse, relax or sleep well. These people have not yet developed illnesses, but they are certainly not experiencing a "healthy existence."

Of special concern is the research reporting that children living near airports suffered from stress and elevated blood pressure. These children, like adults, rate their quality of life as poorer than children living in quieter areas. Children can suffer in other ways as well. Noise can slow down their learning and reading skills as demonstrated in studies of children who live in noisy environments or attend schools near noise sources such as highways, railroads and airports.

Laboratory studies have found that noise and aggression go hand in hand. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that when we read newspaper accounts of neighbors battling over noise, many report the display of outright aggression. Furthermore, in noisy surroundings, people are also less likely to be helpful to each other.

Noise can no longer be viewed as an annoyance or inconvenience or an intrusion to which one must adapt. Like water and air pollution, noise must be regarded as a pervasive and dangerous pollutant that is hazardous to human health and well-being. Recognition of noise as a harmful pollutant would be easier if Congress would reestablish the Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Secondly, citizens would get greater response to their noise complaints if they were supported by the legal profession. It is hoped that this article, highlighting the damaging effects of noise, would serve to enlist members of the legal profession in defending people against a potent pollutant.