Noise is the New Secondhand Smoke

April 19, 2018

New York City, American’s largest metropolis, fields about 50,000 non-emergency, 311 calls each day, and the No. 1 complaint is noise.

In a city whose cacophony can reach 95 dB in midtown Manhattan — way above the federal government’s recommended average of no more than 70 dB — the commotion over all that racket involves irate residents, anti-noise advocates, bars, helicopter sightseeing companies, landscapers and construction companies, as well as City Hall.

Recently, New York University has started a five-year study funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor noise in New York. The Sounds of New York City project aims to track sound across the city. But what policymakers will do with the information is not yet clear.

No studies have been done on the change in city noise over time. No one really know whether it is getting worse or by how much. But experts point to rising complaints, more lawsuits, more people with hearing problems, and studies showing noise has negative health effects.


Noise is “the new secondhand smoke issue,” said Bradley Vite, an anti-noise advocate who pushed for regulations in Elkhart, Indiana, that come with some of the nation’s steepest fines. “It took decades to educate people on the dangers of secondhand smoke. We may need decades to show the impact of secondhand noise.”


The Environmental Protection Agency has said that noise below an average of 70 decibels over 24 hours is safe and won’t cause hearing loss. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says anything below an 85 dB won’t cause hearing loss for workers exposed to loud machinery. But those levels are way above recommendations made by the European Union.

In 2009, the EU set noise guidelines of 40 dB at night to “protect human health.” And it said steady, continuous noise in the daytime — such as the noise on highways — should not exceed 50 dB.


No Place is Really Quiet


Almost no place in the continental United States is free of man-made sound. When it mapped noise across the country, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2017 found that 97% of the population is subjected to man-made noise. A recent study of 290 national park sites found that 67% of them have significant human-caused noise. In the national parks, the biggest culprit is aircraft, the planes overhead, and then road traffic and sounds from industrial sources like oil and natural gas drilling, according to experts.

Although aircraft noise fell by 95% from 1970 to 2004 because plane engines have become quieter,  local battles over airport and airplane noise continue for communities in flight paths.


Noise exposure also appears to be related to other social factors. People in poorer and racially segregated neighborhoods live with higher levels of noise, according to a 2017 study led by the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley. Neighborhoods with median annual incomes below $25,000 were nearly two decibels louder than neighborhoods with incomes above $100,000. And communities where at least 3 in 4 residents are black had median nighttime noise levels of 46.3 dB — 4 decibels louder than communities with no black residents.


Trying to Quiet the Noise


A few states and cities are beginning to do something to quiet things down. In Texas, new “quiet concrete” is being tested on two stretches of highway on Interstate 10 and U.S. 290. The $12.4 million project is aimed at replacing concrete sound barriers that won’t be needed because highway traffic will be quieter.

The quieter concrete drops highway sound levels 5.8 decibels on average, a study in Texas found. That is equivalent to a roughly 70 percent reduction in traffic.

In Phoenix, more than 200 miles of highway have been resurfaced with a concrete mix that uses pieces of used rubber tires to dampen sound.


Leaf Blowers and Helicopters


Hundreds of cities have leaf blower regulations, but they are difficult to enforce. Regulation has been prevalent in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, according to Quiet Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for noise control. State lawmakers in Hawaii have considered a ban on gas blowers. And cities like Washington, D.C., have been considering a ban for several years, but not passed one.

Washington, New York and Los Angeles also have struggled with helicopter noise. In Washington, military flights are to blame; in New York, it’s sightseeing flights; and in Los Angeles, it is filmmakers trying to get the perfect shot. About three-quarters of the roughly 145 daily flights in the D.C. area are to or from the Pentagon, according to a letter to the Pentagon from Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia congressional representatives.


Source: Mindy Fetterman, Governing; image courtesy

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