That our society is becoming noisier and that more people are being disturbed by noise is evidenced by the growing number of books, chapters and articles being written about noise and their call for greater quiet in our lives. In 2010, the New York Times reviewed three books dealing with noise and the quest for quiet and I contributed a chapter on noise to two books dealing with environmental issues, as well as an article on noise to The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (Weiner, I. B. and Craighead, W. E., 2010). Additionally, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has recently added a noise section on its website http://www.epa.gov/air/noise.html and in the last few years other books have been written about noise; noise chapters are increasingly appearing in books dealing with environmental hazards; and the media has paid close attention to stories addressing the harmful effects of noise on people. The books, chapters, articles and media stories on noise speak eloquently to the adverse effects of noise to people’s mental and physical well-being. However, actions to lessen the din have not followed this greater awareness that noise is hazardous to health.
The United States government, in passing the Noise Control Act in 1972, acknowledged its responsibility in protecting Americans from the harmful effects of noise. The Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was established in EPA to carry out this responsibility. In the 1970s ONAC published pamphlets designed to educate Americans about the hazards of noise and to inform them about ways to protect themselves from noise. The Federal government put pressure on other agencies, e.g. Federal Aviation Administration, to regulate noise emissions and assisted States in their noise abatement efforts. However, former President Reagan was permitted to curtail the funding of ONAC and the Congresses and Presidents that followed have not acted to fund this office despite the fact that the Noise Control Act still prevails. President Reagan believed that noise pollution was a local issue but, unfortunately, for the most part, the States did not treat noise abatement as a high priority.
The years passed and noise increased as did the noise complaints of citizens, especially those living near airports and in large cities, who were being exposed to more and more noise. Additionally, anti-noise groups were formed and the internet provided the opportunity for citizens worldwide to express their concerns about the dangers of noise. Some cities responded to the citizen cry for noise abatement and in 2007 New York City revised its thirty year old noise code which, at the time it was passed, demonstrated the city’s concern about noise impacts. In London last year, the citizens were successful in stopping the addition of a runway to Heathrow Airport. Acknowledging that the “…problems of noise are likely to become more pervasive and lower the quality of life for everyone,” the Report entitled Technology for a Quieter America (The National Academies Press, Washington, D. C., 2010) looks at the sources of noise, efforts to reduce noise emissions, and reviews federal, state and local noise regulations.
When ONAC was established under the Noise Control Act of 1972, there were studies that linked noise to health and these were cited in ONAC’s publications. However, today the scientific studies linking noise to adverse mental and health effects have grown considerably. Despite these studies, the many articles and chapters on noise in books and magazines, and the media’s increased interest in noise pollution, too little is being done to “stop the noise.” I have often analogized the smoking/health link to the noise/health link in that there were those people who called for smoking restrictions back in the 1950s, as there are today calls for noise abatement, but there were too many people who stated sixty years ago that there was not enough evidence to support a correlation between smoking and respiratory disorders, as there are those today who want less restrictions placed on noise emissions. To those who not yet convinced that noise is deleterious to health, I quote Dr. William H. Stewart, former U.S. Surgeon General, who said the following at a 1969 Conference on Noise as a Public Health Hazard. “Must we wait until we prove every link in the chain of causation…..To wait for it is to invite disaster or to prolong suffering unnecessarily.”
I believe that while the research on smoking and health impacts moved us toward smoking bans, the lawsuits against the cigarette industry helped as well. Lawsuits by individuals damaged by years of smoking also contributed to a greater recognition that smoking was harmful to health. Thus, I believe lawsuits against noise offenders will help bring about more noise control laws and regulations. Although I have participated as an expert witness in cases involving noise intrusions, e.g. motocross raceways, wind turbines, lawsuits involving noise are still few in number, but more attorneys have been contacting me lately asking for my opinion on noise matters. Thus, I write this article to encourage the legal profession to look more closely at inquiries about noise disturbances and consider taking the cases of those beleaguered by noise. In so doing, they won’t only help to lessen the stress and discomfort of their clients, but such lawsuits will support efforts to abate the noises around us, and in turn, provide a quieter and healthier environment for all the citizens.