Noise Hurts—Medical Research Conclusively Links Noise to Serious Diseases

If a rusty pipe in a neighborhood oozed black goo and testing showed that the black goo was linked to Type II diabetes, sleep deprivation, cardiovascular disease, early death, birth defects, ulcers, colitis, migraine headaches, increased blood pressure, increased heart rates, impairment of life tasks, neuroticism, morbidity, speech impairment,  myocardial infarction/heart attack, hearing loss, neuropsychological disturbances, stress, psychiatric disorders, psychological annoyance, and cognitive disruption (learning), irate neighbors would demand that the pipe be shut down immediately. Medical research shows precisely these links to noise pollution in neighborhoods, and yet noise pollution abatement continues to fall on deaf ears.—Shannon Brown

Noise mysteriously remains an apparent pariah. Many support shutting down polluting coal plants, digging up abandoned barrels of carcinogenic material, stopping sewerage overflows into creeks, blocking acid mine drainage, and abating manure lagoon collapses. Yet, call for a local noise ordinance, impounding a boom-car terrorizing the neighborhood, installing screening for vehicle traffic noise, shifting aircraft patterns away from communities and sensitive natural areas, or limiting outdoor eateries from blasting amplified music, and even rabid environmentalists sheepishly turn away vaguely muttering about “property rights,” “it’s just noise,” or “having fun.”

Noise hurts humans and that knowledge is nothing new. Along with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Hazardous Waste Act, and other key environmental legislation addressing human health risks of the early 1970 , Congress also passed the Noise Pollution Act (1972) and the Quiet Communities Act (1978). Most think that I am joking when I mention these Acts.

Congress took action in the 1970s, along with other environmental legislation, because even 50 years ago, environmental noise was linked to serious health problems. In the words of the US Congress

[I]nadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population…. The Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.

The US EPA later summarized:

[n]oise pollution adversely affects the lives of millions of people. Studies have shown that there are direct links between noise and health. Problems related to noise include stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states

noise pollution is a major environmental and public health burden, second only to air pollution.

So why do communities, despite the overwhelming medical evidence, continue to ignore reasonable noise pollution abatement? Some just ignore the issue altogether (until it affects them, in my experience). Some don’t want to appear a killjoy. Some have a grossly distorted view of property rights and wrongly assume some “right” to make noise that governments cannot possibly impair—disturbingly, these mistaken people have the situation exactly backwards because the fundamental constitutional right protected is the fundamental property right to the quiet enjoyment of property and corresponding constitutional duty to use your property in a way that does not affect the right to quiet enjoyment of others. Some assume that “nuisance” law somehow fully addresses the situation. All irresponsible (and as some local governments may soon find out, unconstitutional and likely takings) excuses.

In fact, even in 1969, Congress concisely summarized why so-called “nuisance” law fails to address noise:

[Many noise disturbances should] be settled by mutual concession and neighborly good will. But if the selfish and obstinate persons insist on disturbing the neighborhood, the burden of equity proceedings [, through nuisance,] ought not be imposed on the injured residents, but the nuisance should be dealt with by municipal ordinance…

Most of the environmental laws of the 1970s arose because so-called “nuisance” law fails to protect property and community rights, imposes dramatic costs on the victims of the pollution to enforce their rights against the wrongdoer, and often allows wrongdoers to escape any responsibility because “nuisance” law is so vague and arbitrary.

Unquestionably, noise pollution adversely affects human health (and may affect animal health and the health of natural areas). No one has a “right” to make noise. Making noise is not even protected by the First Amendment (see Rock Against Racism, 1989). So why the avoidance and delay (two questions even more puzzling for so-called environmental organizations who rarely address noise)?

Noise is a serious pollutant. Decent and neighborly people recognize cooperation in neighborhoods in abating noise. But governments and communities can no longer ignore the adverse consequences to human health and dramatic costs associated with noise and the wrongdoers perpetrating noise pollution.