Noise pollution is a health issue

Cities are nearly the only regulators

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published July 7, 2015


METRO DETROIT — Noise pollution could be a contributing factor for cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and hypertension, but regulations are limited to what local municipalities have set up and can enforce.

Richard Neitzel, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, said that while most people would think of hearing loss as the first, and possibly only, health impact from noise pollution, there have been a number of studies linking it to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.

In a community, he said, it could be that sustained noise can disturb a person’s sleep, something that is known to be a factor in cardiovascular problems. But that does not appear to be the only time that noise is a problem.

“On the other hand, studies have shown that workers exposed during the day also have a risk of cardiovascular disease,” Neitzel said. “Presumably, they aren’t sleeping on the job, so maybe noise is just a general stressor on your system, and systemic stress will also put you at risk for heart disease.”

He believes some of the health risks historically attributed to air pollution could also have been due to noise, as a lot of major urban sources for air pollution — highways, airports, industry and seaports — tend to be consistently loud places. Currently, researchers in the U.S. and Europe are trying to identify the degree of risk for each.

Any sort of major changes in how we deal with noise could be a while off, Neitzel said. While the Environmental Protection Agency used to try and regulate noise levels, it does not do so at the moment, leaving that up to states and local municipalities to handle. Under the EPA studies done in the 1970s, the agency recommended a limit of 55 A-weighted — or higher-frequency noise — decibels of sound within a 24-hour period in residential areas, or a 75-decibel-level workday followed by a quieter rest of the day.

“I think the evidence is that this is more of a chronic stress, so if you have an occasional loud sound, that won’t be bad for you,” Neitzel said. “It’s more of a prolonged exposure over months, years, decades.”

For reference, 50 decibels is the average sound level for a quiet suburb, light traffic, or a refrigerator. Research done by Neitzel and other scientists found that an annual level of 55-60 decibels may increase hypertension risks; a 1981 study by the EPA found that just under half of all Americans were exposed at or above that level. Neitzel’s 2012 study also found that 9 of 10 New York City residents are exposed regularly to more than that decibel level.

Local enforcement can be tricky. Roseville City Manager Scott Adkins said the city uses a noise ordinance, similar to those in neighboring communities, that limits loud noise in the nighttime hours.

“For the rule of thumb, restrictions are in place from 11 p.m.-7 a.m. to not annoy or disturb the quiet or comfort of persons in any building or dwelling in the city,” Adkins said. “This then includes shouting, yelling, hooting, howling, whistling or any other loud noises, and it also includes the unnecessary use of car horns.”

The ordinance does cover “commotion in vehicles” and other exceptionally loud noises all day long — particularly if they tend to be habitual. Adkins said that in either event, police can be dispatched to write a violation or ask the violator to quiet things down, but police need to catch the noisemaker in the act to enforce the ordinance. The ordinance was written broadly so police could have some leeway in dealing with violators.

In neighboring Eastpointe, the ordinance is almost exactly the same. Director of Public Works Mary Van Haaren said the city tries to keep things quiet between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., in particular. During the daytime, the Building Department handles noise complaints, with the police handling such complaints after hours. Any event with loud noise would require clearance from the City Council for a specific time frame.

Van Haaren said the noise ordinance can apply to noisy pets like dogs and birds, though wild animals are exempt.

Neitzel said that health risks are not necessarily the same as being annoyed, even if the neighbor’s dog barks during the day. He said researchers are studying people who live around major noise sources, like highways and airports, over the long term.

By measuring their noise exposure and taking notes on their health outcomes over the years, he said they could develop an idea on the relationship between the two. Other researchers are focusing on specific workers.

Noise pollution also appears to have an impact on wildlife. Neitzel said there is evidence that underwater noise from ship traffic, sonar and explosions are stressors on fish and marine mammals, and that bird songs are distorted in areas with loud noise, making it hard for the birds to communicate.

A study published in 2009 in the science journal Current Biology found that noisy locations alter which bird species will nest in the area, resulting in less diverse bird populations. The study also found that fewer predators were going after those remaining birds’ nests.

Neitzel said that designing our infrastructure to be quieter is the biggest thing we can do — how highways are built, how cars and planes are designed, where residential neighborhoods are located related to airports, roads and industry. He also said more people taking mass transit options could reduce the number of cars on the road making noise.

Neitzel said the government could also regulate certain consumer products based on noise. While people could also wear earplugs, he said it tends to be easier to deal with the source of the problem rather than getting people to change their habits.

“Unfortunately, I would say it’s taken us decades to get to the place we are now, where noise is everywhere and it’s hard to escape,” he said. “And the bad side of that is it means it’s going to take us some decades to get back out of the spot we’re in.”