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The Federal Noise Laws: Yes There are Laws to Reduce Noise Pollution & Here are the Essentials

Airports, traffic, construction equipment, loud music (from cars or nightclubs) and barking dogs all have something in common: they contribute to noise pollution.

Exposure to loud noise

Exposure to loud noise over time has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disorders, learning deficits in children, stress, and diminished quality of life, according to Congress.

Noise pollution is not only unpleasant, it's dangerous. According to the National Institutes of Health, some 65 million Americans are exposed to noise levels that can get in the way of work and sleep, and 25 million people are at risk of noise-related health problems.

To curb noise pollution, prior to 1982 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), which regulated noise-control activities, required product labeling, facilitated the development of low noise-emission products, coordinated federal noise reduction programs, assisted state and local abatement efforts, and promoted noise education and research.

However, funding for ONAC ceased in 1982, and the EPA's authority has since been shifted to state and local governments, who were deemed the best able to handle noise issues. Nonetheless, two primary federal laws still remain in effect today:

  • The Noise Control Act of 1972: Congress declared 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 major sources of noise regulated in the Act were transportation vehicles and equipment, machinery, appliances, and other products in commerce.

  • The Quiet Communities Act of 1978: Authorized the EPA to provide grants to state and local governments for noise abatement.

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Bills to restore funding to the EPA's ONAC have surfaced as recently as 2003 (The Quiet Communities Act of 2003), but most noise regulations still fall into the hands of state and local governments.

In one attempt to secure $21 million in funding for ONAC between the years of 2004 and 2008, Congress found, according to The Quiet Communities Act of 2003, that:

  • Approximately 28 million Americans are afflicted with some hearing loss, and it has been estimated that 10 million of these impairments are at least partially attributable to damage from exposure to noise.

  • For millions of Americans, noise from aircraft, vehicular traffic, and a variety of other sources is a constant source of torment.

  • Millions of Americans are exposed to noise levels that can lead to sleep loss, psychological and physiological damage, and work disruption.

  • Chronic exposure to noise has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disorders, learning deficits in children, stress, and diminished quality of life.

  • Excessive noise leading to sleep deprivation and task interruptions can result in untold costs on society in diminished worker productivity.

State and Local Noise Ordinances: From Quiet Hours to Noisy Mufflers

unnecessary noise

In many cities, any "unnecessary noise" or "unreasonably loud" noise are violations of noise ordinances and subject to fines and other punishments.

While the federal government still limits noise levels for aviation and other transportation venues (railways, etc.), state and local governments have varying noise ordinances.

To find out the details on noise law in your city, check out your city's Web site. Generally speaking, however, police typically enforce noise ordinances by taking a decibel reading to find out if the noise is really loud enough to break the law.

Some of the more common noise ordinances out there include:

  • Citywide quiet hours, such as after 10 p.m. on weekdays, or before 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. on weekends

  • Honking car horns for a non-danger situation

  • Barking dogs at night

  • Motorcycle noise

  • Continuous noise beyond a certain decibel level (such as from a neighbor's noisy party or local bar)

For example, three cities have recently cracked down on motorcycle noise. In New York City, motorcycle riders can be fined a minimum of $440 for having a muffler or exhaust system that can be heard within 200 feet.

In Denver, just putting a muffler on your motorcycle that's made by someone other than the original manufacturer, and may therefore be louder, can cost you a ticket of $500.

And in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, motorcycle and vehicle drivers alike can be fined $150 or more for "drawing attention to themselves," such as by revving their engines or doing hard accelerations.

Beyond vehicular noise, though, in most areas of the country police officers are given the freedom to make judgment calls on anti-noise ordinances. Many state ordinances simply say that "unreasonably loud" or "unnecessary noise" are violations.

Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Noise Pollution

What can you do to bring some peace and quiet to your environment? Here are the top nine tips:

  1. Wear earplugs in noisy places

  2. Turn down the volume on radios, personal headsets and TVs

  3. Try muting your TV during the commercials, or leaving it off all together and reading a book instead

  4. Sound-treat your home by putting heavy curtains on windows, rugs on the floors and sealing all air leaks

  5. Consider adding acoustical tile to your ceilings and walls

  6. Put on some light music to buffer outside noise that you can't control

  7. Use sound-blocking headphones to listen to music/TV without the disturbance of outside noises, and without disturbing those around you

  8. Look for quieter home appliances

  9. Take a drive in a rural area to escape city noise for a day

Recommended Reading

Noise Pollution: How Bad is it, How Bad Could it Get, What are the Effects?

LISTEN UP! Exposure to Loud Noise May Cause Tumor & Other Health Risks


The Quiet Communities Act of 2003

Noise Pollution Clearinghouse

EPA Public Access

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