AARP Sounds Alarm on Noise: The Not-So-Silent Killer

In July 2021, the AARP published an article sounding the alarm over noise as a serious health issue. The article helps alert the AARP’s 38 million members to the fact that noise represents a health crisis—not simply a “nuisance” or irritation.

The article, Loud Noise: The Not-So-Silent Killer Is Back, cites well-known research linking noise to serious health issues:

Researchers found that living in a noisy area — like a city or next to a highway — increases your risk of severe stroke by 30 percent, while living in a quiet, green area can reduce it by up to 25 percent.

The article also cites current medical  research supporting links between noise to:

heart attack[,]…immune system suppression, diabetes, arterial plaque buildup (atherosclerosis), psychiatric illness and possibly cancer.

The article starts to dispel the outdated notion that noise represents “mere irritation.” However, the article omits two effective means to address noise: self-assessment and advocacy.

  1. Commit to reduce noise levels on your own property and with your vehicles. Recycle leaf blowers. Use low-sound lawn equipment such as reel-style mowers or battery mowers. Advise children of the impacts of noise on neighboring properties. Replace defective or illegal mufflers on vehicles (including motorcycles).
  2. People can notify local officials of noise problems in neighborhoods, write state officials, or participate in local or national noise pollution abatement groups. Advocate for effective enforcement of noise regulations and ordinances in your community. Complain to companies that sell noise-producing items.

Noise represents a serious health issue—as the AARP, and hopefully its members, now recognize. Recognition is a first step. Now take action.

Pennsylvania Legislator Tries to Ban Municipal Limits on Fireworks with HB1628

Pennsylvania State Representative Robert Freeman introduced House Bill HB1628 on June 15, 2021, that reputes to “regulate fireworks”—a huge and growing problem in Pennsylvania after the 2017 expansion of fireworks sales in Pennsylvania to allow extremely powerful explosives.

HB1628

  • prohibits communities from limiting fireworks by imposing mandatory state minimum time-frames for fireworks detonations—allowing fireworks a staggering 11 hours per day any day, 12 hours per day on weekends, and 14 hours per day on specified holidays (municipalities CANNOT reduce these time limits under this proposed law);
  • minimizes penalties for a first-offenses to a mere summary offense with a minimum fine of $100; and
  • bans municipalities from addressing fireworks more stringently than HB1628 (gag legislation).

The proposed act contains nominal requirements on fireworks peddlers requiring them to provide notice of the mandatory time limits and contains a provision that grades second-offenses within the same year as a misdemeanor.

Only in government-speak does HB1628 represent “regulation.”

HB1628 simply exacerbates the unconstitutional assaults on community members (and pets) from powerful explosives. Rather than respect the constitutional rights of citizens to the quiet enjoyment of their property without assault from outrageously loud explosives, the Legislature continues under the defective reasoning, “gee, the perpetrators will just buy the illegal fireworks out-of-state so the government should at least get some Pennsylvania taxes by allowing these explosives and then taxing sales in-state.” Instead, how about repealing the sneaky 2017 tax legislation and instead increasing penalties for detonating explosives to felonies with mandatory minimum jail time?

The Legislature must repeal the 2017 tax provisions now, not exacerbate the fireworks problem by barring communities from  meaningfully addressing this problem. See HB988 for a competing bill repealing the fireworks law.

Memorial Day: Respecting Sacrifices With Quiet

Memorial Day represents a day of respectful and somber reflection on those who died in active service in the US military. Just as a funeral or any remembrance, Memorial Day stands a a day of gravity and pause—just as we would a moment of silence. In fact, the earliest recognition of what is now Memorial Day marked the sobering day with the closure of businesses and community members visiting and marking the graves of those lost in service.

Today, and perhaps I sound bitter, society has distorted and twisted Memorial Day into simply another national holiday—loudly proclaiming the start of summer, business sales, rowdy parties, the ending of the school year, and fun…fun…fun.

Rather than respectful silence, hordes of illegal motorcycles descend on sacred places, waving flags, blasting through communities, and calling it “remembrance”—”Rolling to Remember.”

In this noise-driven zeal, we lose sight of the sacrifices made to make that misplaced zeal possible. We lose simple courtesy for families struggling with remembering—whose father, grandfather, brother, uncle, or neighbor lies below that grave marker.

Perhaps we need a call for a resurgence of restoring quiet respect for Memorial Day. For restoring the purpose for the Day. For pausing and reflecting. For truly respecting the sacrifices made and honoring those lost.

West Chester Pennsylvania Protects Downtown From Noise

Visitors to West Chester, Pennsylvania, this summer can enjoy a more relaxed meal, enjoy a normal conversation outside, and forego the ear plugs increasingly required by illegal vehicle noise.

Mayor Jordan Norley of West Chester and the West Chester Police Department actively launched Operation Quiet-Downtown in late April 2021 to help reduce unnecessary and illegal vehicle noise in the downtown area. The Operation will actively cite vehicle operators who choose to operate illegal motorcycles, illegal vehicles, blast loud music from vehicles, and otherwise interfere with the quality-of-life of residents and visitors to West Chester.

Operation Downtowns Needed Throughout Pennsylvania

West Chester’s Operation Downtown shows that enforcement of Pennsylvania laws to reduce noise is possible if the community simply has the will to do it. No special equipment is required, and enforcement is fair to all persons—community visitors, workers in the downtown, business owners (whose businesses are limited by noisemakers), residents, and even the illegal-vehicle operators (who know their vehicles are illegal but choose to aurally-assault people anyway). No one is limiting any legal activity  by enforcing the noise-related laws because operating these loud vehicles is already illegal (as is buying and selling the illegal exhaust systems).

Increased Pandemic Road Noise According to Study

A recent Boston University study on soundscape ecology in urban parks in the Boston area suggests that increased vehicle speeds may be increasing noise in some urban parks despite overall reductions in traffic due to the pandemic.

The study notes:

Repeated exposure to high levels of noise pollution can have a variety of negative effects on people, including hearing damage, disruption of spoken communication, and disturbance of sleep cycles, with serious long-term health impacts…. High sound levels in parks can negatively affect the visitor experience; for visitors to national parks, enjoyment begins to decline after sound levels exceed 37 dB …. In many animal populations, noise pollution impacts physiology, behavior and fitness, and interferes with communication…. In bird populations, the effects on communication can result in increased success for some species and reductions in fitness for others, leading to a change in community structure.–Citations omitted

The study focused on three urban natural areas. In two of the areas, overall noise declined insignificantly by 1-3dB during the pandemic apparently due to decreased human activity.

However, areas near roads saw increases in noise attributed to higher vehicle speeds due to reduced traffic congestion from the pandemic. The study notes:

At Blue Hills, in contrast, sound levels were 4–6 dB higher during the pandemic lockdown in both March and June than during the pre-COVID-19 measurements. This increase in sound level in March and June, which occurred both near the road and hundreds of meters into the park, is most likely due to higher vehicle speeds during the time of the pandemic on U.S. 93.

The article notes the sometimes confusing aspects of sound-level measurement using decibels:

A 3 dB increase is equivalent to a doubling in sound energy; however, it takes a 10 dB increase for people to perceive sound as twice as loud (Buxton et al., 2017).

The Boston University study illustrates that noise research is complex but a serious source of community pollution. The growing field of soundscape ecology holds promise for addressing this pollution source.

Citations

BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Without Commuter Traffic, Pandemic-Era Boston Drivers Are Speeding Up, Increasing Noise Pollution

BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION: Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on noise pollution in three protected areas in metropolitan Boston (USA)

ENN: Without Commuter Traffic, Pandemic-Era Boston Drivers Are Speeding up, Increasing Noise Pollution

Researchers at California Polytechnic State University Suggest that Noise Negatively Affects Plants

Three researchers from California Polytechnic State University published an article in The Proceeding of the Royal Society B demonstrating both long-term, negative effects on plants from noise and also a lengthy recovery time (over a decade) from noise.

Few have researched the effects of noise on plant life. This project assessed noise pollution from natural gas wells in New Mexico and the effects on pinyon pines. The research suggests a startling 75% decline in pinyon pine seedlings near noisy gas well compressors, and the decline persisted for over a decade after the noisy well abated.

Strikingly, the sound-levels at the noisy sites were between 50dB and 70dB—levels perceived as very loud by humans and apparently also highly-disruptive to plants and animals. The evidence shows that noise is not simply a “nuisance” or ephemeral. Noise negatively affects ecology including human health.

The study shows the complex relationship between plants and animals. The noise apparently chases-away bluejays, which naturally disburse the pine seeds, impairing plant  recovery in the vicinity of the noisy gas wells.

See, e.g., ABC News.

 

Public Comment Objects to Attempts to Increase NonCoal Mining Noise Emissions from Airblast Explosions

On April 14, 2021, PANPA filed Public Comments objecting to the noise-related aspects of a Proposed Rule-making by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection related to mining explosions.

Proposed rule-making 51 Pa.B 1519, in part, addresses airblast noise (blasting operations or explosions) in noncoal mining contexts. The proposed rule seeks permission for the DEP to set blasting sound-levels higher than 133dB upon request of the blasting operator.

The full Comments appear below in PDF.  The objections focus on three areas:

  1. The summary conclusion of a “minimal impact” does not meet the Federal Pollution Prevention Act.
  2. Permitting any upward departure from the current 133dB maximum airblast sound-level to an unknown maximum does not a) meet Constitutional requirements and b)  cannot constitute a “minimal impact,” adequate “sound reduction,” or adequate pollution prevention, as an unknown.

  3. Allowing a lessor-owner to merely request of a lessee a signed waiver to the airblast requirements, without the lessor-owner first notifying the lessee of the numerous adverse health effects linked to noise including non-hearing loss effects, does not a) protect public health, b) mitigate pollution, or c) meet Constitutional requirements.

The Public Comment suggests several revisions to the Proposed Rule including:

  1. Allowing LOWER decibel levels but not higher. (This is the current rule.)
  2. Requiring blasters to actively minimize sound levels and noise on properties not owned by the blaster.
  3. Formally allowing affected property owners to directly petition the DEP to reduce sound levels and noise from a blasting operation.
  4. Requiring informed-consent before a mining operator lessor can require a lessee to sign a waiver from the blasting sound-level limits.

32,768 Times “Louder”

For those who work with noise and sound, even the current 133dB limit is astoundingly loud (causing permanent hearing damage and affecting neighboring  properties). By reference the current maximum of 133dB hovers at a shocking 32,768 times “louder” than residential sound-level recommendations.

Assuming adoption of the new Rule, even if the DEP approves a deceptively “minor” 6dB increase to 139dB under the new rule, that doubles the sound emissions and becomes 65,536 times “louder” than recommendations—sadly, these are not math errors.

Furthermore, the current 133dB sound-level limit is measured at the neighboring property including at schools, churches, public buildings, and residences. There is apparently no way for affected property owners to even seek hearing protection from the blasts.

Public Comments PDF

Official Pennsylvania Comments Repository

New Disorderly Conduct Case May Help Address Noise

The Pennsylvania Superior Court modestly stepped-up criminal relief for victims of alleged neighbor retaliation or excessive noise.

In Commonwealth v. McConnell, 2020 PA Super 300 (Super., Dec. 30, 2020) (Slip). police cited  McConnell with disorderly conduct for turning on eight, construction-grade, floodlights in a residential neighborhood and directing them towards the home of a neighbor.

The case illustrates how neighbor issues escalate quickly—and parallels noise-related issues. According to the opinion, the construction-grade lights responded to alleged problems between neighbors about lighting around a neighbor’s pool area, which apparently included “string lights, a “green glow from the swimming pool,” tiki torches, the motion-detecting security light, and the light from a fire pit on the property.

While technically not addressing noise, the case may apply to retaliatory or excessive noise situations and also addresses spurious claims of First Amendment activity cited to excuse noise violations.

Disorderly Conduct Includes “…direct assaults on the physical senses of members of the public”

Criminal disorderly conduct in Pennsylvania may arise when a party creates a “physically offensive condition,” which includes “…direct assaults on the physical senses of members of the public.” [Slip 6]. “[A] defendant can create a physically offensive condition if she invades the physical privacy of another in an extreme manner….” [Slip 7]. (Note: disorderly conduct also applies to unreasonable noise.)

The new opinion may give relief in some extreme cases of noise pollution and noise retaliation in Pennsylvania. Noise may rise to “direct assaults on the physical senses of members of the public.”

However, disorderly conduct still applies only in extreme situations of “public unruliness which can or does lead to tumult and disorder.” [Slip 6-8] The Superior Court reminds “the offense of disorderly conduct is not intended as a catchall for every act which annoys or disturbs people and it is not to be used as a dragnet for all the irritations which breed in the ferment of a community.” [Slip 6]

The latter shows why disorderly conduct alone is not enough to address most noise problems. Thus, municipalities need a true noise ordinance, a public nuisance ordinance, and zoning performance standards to address other noise issues that do not necessarily arise to the extreme levels required to support criminal, disorderly conduct.

First Amendment Activity Not Exempt from Reasonableness and Excessive Activity May Support Disorderly Conduct

McConnell reminds that even First Amendment activity must be exercised in a reasonable manner. and the analysis focuses on the disturbance from the noise, not the content of the noise. [Slip 14-16].”[W]hen a protected first amendment right to free speech is implicated, a disorderly conduct conviction will stand only when “he actor intend[s] to breach the public peace by making
unreasonable noise.’ [Slip 15] However, one must “exercise his rights in a reasonable manner.” [Slip 14] The opinion also suggests, in a criminal context, that noise that was clearly unreasonable for the standard noise levels in a residential neighborhood may constitute disorderly conduct. See [Slip 16].

Oftentimes, wrongdoers waive First Amendment activity like a magic talisman to avoid liability for noise assaults.  McConnell again reminds that even alleged First Amendment activity may support disorderly conduct convictions when exercised in an unreasonable manner. See [Slip 15-16].

 

 

 

Songbirds Negatively Affected By Fracking Noise Should Not Surprise

Recent findings by Penn State researchers will not surprise victims of fracking gas compressor noise.

The loud, low-frequency noise emitted by natural gas compressor stations travels hundreds of yards into undisturbed areas. Co-author Julian Avery

The research demonstrates negative, physiological effects on birds from fracking compressor station noise in Pennsylvania.

The findings, recently published in Ornithological Applications, demonstrate that compressor noise caused behavioral changes that led to reduced reproductive success for eastern bluebirds and tree swallows.

Anyone who has seen the “blue-blur” of an eastern bluebird in flight on a summer afternoon or the graceful flight of a tree swallow just before dusk will lament yet-another serious problem associated with fracking. Both bluebirds and tree swallows also help control insect populations such as disease-carrying mosquitoes, so decreased birds may foretell increased ZIKA and other disease.

The noise research on birds may parallel similar negative health effects from noise on humans including human reproductive impairment and miscarriages attributed to noise exposure. (E.g., research by NIH.)

Unfortunately for Pennsylvanian’s, the research suggests that Pennsylvanian’s and Pennsylvania natural resources are amidst a disturbing experiment with real, negative effects and significant unknowns.

 

Thanks to the PA Environmental Digest for the tip.

Bluebird Photo Ken Thomas, public domain.

 

 

New NASA Plane Fights Noise Pollution

NASA announced the pioneering flight of the all-electric X-57 Maxwell airplane. The X-Plane Program represents 70 years of cutting-edge aircraft development–some aircraft buffs may recall the X-1 Bell and X-15.

While abating aircraft noise itself is not new, the X-57 specifically seeks to reduce noise pollution emissions from the X-57 line of aircraft through new, complex, noise modelling (see images on the site).

Past NASA materials specifically acknowledge the problems arising from noise, for example in space flight, such as noise sickness and reduced task performance due to noise stress. See Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight.

The X-57 program’s recognition of noise as a fundamental and integrated design issue (not an after-the-fact issue)  and active promotion of noise-reduced designs reflects a global recognition of noise as a serious pollution problem.

Photo Source: NASA