Global Noise Pollution Issues

EU Gets Serious About Noise Pollution

Traffic-related noise may account for more than one million healthy life years lost in Europe, according to the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s in-house science service.

That’s one million healthy life years lost due to traffic noise alone. If you’re still not alarmed by the effects of noise pollution on well-being, it’s time to pay closer attention.

Europe is getting serious about noise pollution, as it proved this past summer when London police abruptly shut down Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen in observance of local noise ordinance rules. Plenty of people were upset about that, but the fact is noise is having a seriously negative impact on the health and quality of our lives and the wildlife with whom we share this planet. Someone had to take a leadership role and begin the pioneering task of quieting the world. Europe has taken on the challenge in earnest.

It’s time to give the EU credit for not only creating fairly strict laws to curb noise pollution, but enforcing them as well. When it comes to noise ordinances anywhere in the world, they always seem to fall short when it gets down to enforcement.

EU Member States last week published a new set of common noise assessment methods that will make evaluating noise exposure easier, thus allowing officials to set up appropriate policies to reduce noise pollution across Europe. The new methods, formally known as Common Noise Assessment Methods in Europe (CNOSSOS-EU), evaluate noise from roadways, air traffic, rail, and industry, and provide consistent data on noise levels to which people are exposed.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

This common set of noise assessment methods will be the basis by which officials obtain comparable figures by the end of 2013. All EU Member States will be required to start using the CNOSSOS methods for Europe’s next round of strategic noise mapping in 2017.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik calls noise a serious environmental risk noise a serious environmental risk to public health, especially in urban areas, due to increased traffic and inefficient urban planning. The CNOSSOS-EU will aid European Commission in coordinating the methods used to assess exposure to noise so that data collected from all 27 countries can be compared uniformly, and efficient solutions to noise exposure across Europe will be more effective. The concept is an EU-wide systematic approach to managing noise pollution.

I compare this approach to traffic laws in the U.S. – they’re universal. No matter where you drive in America, you know what yellow, red, and green lights mean. Roadway signage is immediately identifiable, and everyone – well, almost everyone – knows what is expected of them in order to comply with traffic laws anywhere in the U.S.

It makes sense that the EU is approaching its noise pollution issues this way, not just economically speaking, but enforcement will be more widely accepted and it seems that in a decade or so, Europeans will be uniformly adhering to noise ordinances. There is no other way any noise pollution solution is going to work.

I imagine there may be some resistance, or at least I think there would be here in the U.S., where noise is almost a civil right to many of us. Americans like their car stereos loud and their parties rambunctious, but as we all begin to realize that a noise-free restaurant meal, or hotel room, or home near an airport would be a welcome thing, it’s never going to happen without the kind of intensive planning and orchestration that the EU has so carefully planned and begun to instigate.

Are Americans ready to pull the plug on Springsteen at 10 p.m.? I think not, which is why Europe will beat us to peace and quiet by at least decade or more. They’ll leave us in their noise pollution dust if the same serious initiative isn’t taken this side of the pond.

Americans are suffering from the same noise-related sleep disorders, health effects, and hearing loss as the Europeans, and yet Americans are reluctant to give up some of the worst noise offenders – boom cars, for instance, which are illegal in some countries, continue to (literally) blow out the eardrums of drivers and passengers before they’re 20. Helicopters, motorcycles, and most forms of transportation are filling the environment with noise. We like our concerts and radios loud, we build our gymnasiums, restaurants, bars and hotels with inadequate consideration of acoustical consequences.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

We are attached to our noise, although the love affair is waning as noise pollution has reached epidemic proportions globally.  Like second hand cigarette smoke, eventually noise will be understood as the health hazard it is, and taking measures to curb it will become a universal effort. I hope.

If the U.S. were to adopt a common framework for noise assessment methods similar to the EU version, it could facilitate the preparation of detailed action plans to reduce and eventually prevent harmful noise levels in our everyday environments.

The EU’s Environmental Noise Directive was introduced in 2002, but the first EU-wide noise mapping exercise, performed in 2007, found considerable differences in assessment methods, data collection, and quality. Because of the inconsistency of the data collected in the first study, officials identified the need to devise the new common noise assessment methods being put in place now.

Some chilling stats:

In addition to traffic-related noise accounting for more than one million healthy life years lost in Europe, the economic costs of traffic, rail and road noise pollution across the EU were recently estimated at € 40 billion per year (just less than 52 billion U.S. dollars), equivalent to 0.35% of the EU’s GDP. According to the European Commission’s 2011 White Paper on Transport, traffic noise-related external costs will increase €20 billion (about 26 billion U.S. dollars) per year by 2050 (compared to 2005) unless further action is taken.

Strategic noise maps identify EU priorities for action planning and to provide global assessments of noise exposure across Europe. The information they glean helps to inform the general public about the levels of noise to which they are exposed, to enable reliable estimates of noise-associated disease, and to inform the public about actions in progress to reduce noise pollution.

Noise Pollution in the Most Unlikely Places

In the ancient, picturesque Town of Kendal, County of Cumbria in the UK’s Lake District just under 300 miles north of London, you could almost doze off just looking at the gentle green pastures, rolling hills, and soft puffy clouds against pale blue skies. This quiet, peaceful place, seemingly devoid of anything remotely resembling noise pollution, borders Scotland to the north and the Irish Sea to the West (just beyond the Lake District National Forest.)

There are dells with grazing sheep, and nearby towns with names that sound like they were lifted from the pages of Harry Potter.

Kendal is actually famed for its peace and quiet – despite the fact that for the past 120 years, a series of iconic bells in the Kendal Town Hall bell tower have rung every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Night and day.

Every 15 minutes.

For 120 years.

But that’s about to change.

Two ladies who own the Rainbow Tavern pub (across the road from the Kendal Town Hall), Carol Page and Sharon Clement, have been trying to undo 120 years of tradition since they took ownership of their pub for months, citing noise levels well above the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 45 decibels – well above. The pub owners have measured decibel levels of 79 and higher, and they say they have had enough.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

Page and Clement aren’t the first people to complain about the noisy bells, but they are apparently the first not to back down to the locals who grew up within earshot of those bells ringing every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, and are rather attached. It’s the locals who hold the bells in high esteem, and do not want them turned off at night, which is what the pub ladies and a few other local hotel and B&B owners have requested. Just turn them off from 11.p.m. to 7 a.m. is all they’re asking.

See, the Town of Kendall depends on tourism for its livelihood, and those bells – an important part of the tiny British country town’s identity for more than a century – are bad for business. They’re disturbing the sleep of residents and vacationers alike, and they’re stressing Page and Clement out. They need their vacationers to be happy and well rested, not only so they come back, but so they don’t leave bad reviews on the travel websites.

The landladies of the Rainbow Tavern pub say the bells’ peal interferes with their sleep and enrages their guests.

The bells risk ‘crippling’ their business, just across the road.

“We get so many complaints from guests,” Page told a British tabloid reporter. “If someone complains on Trip Advisor, it could cripple us.”

Page and Clement took ownership of the Rainbow Tavern just three months ago and the women have been trying to get the noisy bells turned off at night ever since.

Local environmental health officials had in the past ruled the bells sound levels to be “appropriate,” but the pub ladies say no one never actually tested the sound levels.

Now, after monitoring the decibel levels from the pub for 24 hours, the decibel reading measured up to 79, well in the range of unacceptable, and constitutes a statutory noise nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act.

The constant clamor of the bells was increasing anxiety and stress levels in some of the town’s residents, including Page and Clement, and finally the town council last week ordered a bell curfew between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

We have seen other incidents here in the U.S. of neighbors complaining about noisy church bells in residential communities that were so loud they constituted noise pollution in the ears of the neighbors who were stuck listening to them all day on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

Noise abatement notices are being doled out to churches in the U.K and the U.S. lately, as awareness of the dangers of noise pollution spreads. In the U.S., a battle began brewing when legal action was taken against a Phoenix, Arizona church after the pastor defied a legal action demanding he stop ringing his church’s electronic chimes incessantly on weekends and holidays. In fact three Phoenix worship centers were closed down due to their bell clamor, and worshipers are calling foul, claiming their freedom to worship is being infringed upon. Similar battles are being waged in San Francisco and elsewhere.

It’s not always easy to explain why a sound that is joyous to one person can be excruciating to another, but in the church bell dramas unfolding across the U.S. and Britain, it seems high decibel levels are causing courts to side against the bell ringers.

Back in Kendal, generations of locals who grew up listening to those bells every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, are incensed that people moving to the area are changing the town’s traditions.

Kendal Civic Society member Patricia Hovey said she spoke for a majority of locals who grew up in Kendal, stating ‘So, for 120 years we’ve all been subjected to unacceptable noise?

‘I think it’s ridiculous – certain noises are unacceptable but this isn’t one of them, it is part of the town’s charm and history,” Hovey said.

“I don’t see why (the bells) should be turned off; it should be for local people to decide – if you move next to a pig farm, you wouldn’t complain about the smell!”

Page, Clement, and other bell noise whistle blowers say that they’re only asking for a break at night so their guests and they can get a good night’s sleep.

“One or two people have argued that the bells have been around for a long time, but so was slavery,” Page said. “It’s a beautiful sound and we respect tradition, but I don’t understand who benefits at night.”

But the issue has been raised in the past. In the 1980s, a similar struggle to quiet the bells at night was rejected by the town council. But in the 1940’s, residents of a local hotel had the bells muted at night after much complaining.

Christian groups in the U.S. and the UK say they believe the move to silence church bells is driven by secularists to restrict Christian freedom to worship. However, folks who want the bells quieted insist the noise is affecting their sleep and health, and they just want some peace and quiet.

U.S. Military Base’s Noise Pollution Costs $1.8 Million

Noise pollution can be expensive, especially if you are the owner of a U. S. Military Base in Japan. A court ordered the Tokyo government to increase compensation for hundreds of residents who must endure the noise from U. S. jets in the area. Guess who Tokyo is going to ask to pay. Tokyo’s high court says 257 residents deserve more than the Y190 million ($1.8 million) they have already been awarded. When the residents were informed, they said, “Huh?!”  The residents were already promised Y160 million.

The court rejected suspension of early morning and late night flights. The court says they have no jurisdiction over the military base and the suit wasn’t filed against the U.S. government…hint, hint.

Japan hosts some 50,000 troops who are accused of making too much noise, committing too much crime and causing environmental pollution. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. presence in the area is important for the balance of power.

Not wanting to be defeated by the ruling to not suspend flights, plaintiffs have pledged to continue to make noise until somebody listens to them.

“We will not be defeated by the ruling, but will continue to raise our voice until it is heard.”


Global Noise Pollution Issues

The Hazards of Noise Pollution Gaining Awareness in Big Cities

News about noise pollution seems to be trending in a big way, as growing awareness of the health risks of noise makes more and more Americans less willing to put up with it. Recent articles and news coverage about unbearably loud environments in New York, Virginia, New Orleans and Los Angeles to name just a few raise a good question: Does noise pollution have to go hand-in-hand with urban living, or are city dwellers within their rights to demand change in the form of lowered decibels?

Recent articles in the New York Times, L.A. Times, and Wall Street Journal have blown the lid off of the life-threatening nuisance that is noise pollution.  Several articles hit the media in early summer pinpointing roadway traffic noise as a proven contributor to heart attacks among people exposed. Long Island and Hamptons residents are close to anarchy over the uber-rich one-percenters flying back and forth in private helicopters daily between their Hamptons vacation homes to their Manhattan offices, with no regulation in place regarding flight paths or flight times. The helicopter noise,which residents claim shakes their homes and wakes them from their sleep, is being interpreted by the unhappy neighbors of these wealthy heli-commuters as intentionally inflicted harassment .

Yet the helicopter offenders don’t seem to care that they’re making their neighbors miserable and probably even affecting their health. Or if they do care, it’s not enough to give up their airborne transportation and return to fighting Manhattan-to-Hamptons roadway traffic every day.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

But the escalating attention given to the hazards of noise pollution on everyday working Americans hit home hardest a few weeks ago when the New York Times published reporter Cara Buckley’s jaw-dropping account of noise levels measured in 37 Manhattan businesses – bars, restaurants, gyms and shops. Noise levels in one of every three business visited was 10-20 decibels or more above those levels deemed safe by OSHA and the World Health Organization.

City noise is no longer something Americans are taking in stride and chalking off as the price we pay to live in the city. Shortly after Ms. Buckley’s expose ran, New York Tines architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, tweeted about Manhattan noise.

“Not a sign of big city grit, but an urban blight.” he tweeted.  In a follow-up tweet, Mr. Kimmelman called noise pollution “the next ecological challenge for the city.”

Could it be that people are becoming proactive about noise pollution? Maybe. Architects and builders in recent years have discovered the importance of including noise abatement materials in new home and renovation designs, as noise pollution creeps further and further into every cranny of our existence, with disastrous consequences to health and hearing. Soundproofing increases the value of real estate, as buyers find real appeal in the idea of home being a true haven, particularly when home is in the heart of any major urban area.

And, new and improved noise barrier and noise deadening materials are available today for use in residential, commercial, and industrial structures. As it stands, the U.S. is significantly less stringent on acceptable decibel levels in the workplace than almost every other country on earth! The economic impact of enforcing noise abatement in public places vs. the health risks of noise pollution has so far been siding with economics. For instance, noisy sightseeing planes in the Grand Canyon have been proven to damage wildlife habitats, and impose unhealthy noise levels on tourists, park rangers, and park employees alike; but a recent bill to regulate low flying aircraft noise over the Grand Canyon was rejected by Congress during passage of a federal transportation funding bill in early July that opponents claim was unexpected and unannounced.

Ironically, this happened just before the National Park Service was about to present its final recommendations on reducing aircraft noise over the Grand Canyon – a recommendation that was formulated after years of noise studies, at a cost of $6 million, plus the collection of nearly 30,000 public comments researchers had gathered.  Arizona Senator John McCain spearheaded the effort to quash aircraft noise regulation in the national park, stating that the regulations would cause serious economic hardship to small plane and helicopter tour operators at the Grand Canyon.

It’s hard to say how much longer noise pollution in the U.S. will be relatively free of limitations. At lease noise deadening materials keep improving, so that if you choose to live in the city, you can install a noise abatement solution that can give you some peace and quiet.

Noise Pollution: Ranking America’s Noisiest Cities

If you love peace and quiet, then Hartford, Connecticut might be a great place to live. Hartford logged the quietest zip code in a survey of 100 U.S.cities, but it’s the loudest cities we’re interested in.

Rated on a scale of one to 100 (one being the quietest – hello, Hartford!) and 100 being the loudest (Detroit – anyone surprised?), some of the results are a bit unexpected; Bangor Maine, the hometown of Author Stephen King ranks much louder (74) than Los Angeles (50).

When it comes to noisy, all the usual suspects are here – New York (86), Chicago (95), Miami (96), Philadelphia (97).  In California, Oakland scores the second highest ranking for noise (99) and San Francisco is not far behind at 93; Houston and Dallas, Texas are in the top 10 at 92 and 90 respectively.

Urban life is noisy, everyone knows this; but many Americans can’t imagine living any other way. However, those people who love their lives in the city may not be considering the repercussions of daily exposure to high noise levels, which affects everything from our blood pressure and heart rate, to our sleep patterns. Noise can make us sick. Even if we think we’ve grown accustomed to the din of our surroundings, our bodies are affected by noise in a way that can rob us of our hearing, ability to concentrate, and even ability to heal after illness or injury. Children raised in noisy environments have a harder time than their peers with school work. Elderly people exposed to high noise levels experienced exaggerated symptoms of illness, anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation.

Noise is a part of the modern world, but the more aware we are of how it affects us and how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones at home, at work, in our schools, hospitals and public buildings, the sooner we can address the seriousness of noise pollution in a meaningful way.

Do you live in one of the country’s noisiest cities, or did you in the past? Tell us what you think of living with noise. Has it affected your health, your hearing, or your ability to sleep? What measures have you taken, or considered taking, to reduce noise in your world?

Global Noise Pollution Issues

The U.S. Lags Behind in Global Noise Pollution Standards

The U.S. lags behind other industrial nations when it comes to establishing and enforcing federal noise standards, and the problem may boil down to one familiar battle: economics vs. the regulatory process. Stiff resistance to even the suggestion of stronger environmental noise standards leave many wondering if  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has any power when it comes to revising out-dated noise standards or even enforcing standards put in place.

Noise pollution awareness is an uphill battle it seems, but New York City has made formidable progress over the past 15-20 years in toning down its volume. Anyone else remember the constant blare of taxi horns in Manhattan prior to the mid- to late 1990s, when laws were put in place to silence them? Although New York has worked hard to make the city less horrible in the noise pollution department, it still has a long way to go – as do most U.S. cities.

A recent test of sound levels at a handful of bars, gym, and restaurants in New York City measured noise levels so high that guests and employees exposed to the noise for just two hours are put at risk, and the establishments could be in violation of OSHA safety standards if anyone was bothering to enforce them.

But audiologists say that even if these businesses were in compliance with OSHA standards, it wouldn’t be enough to protect workers’ hearing. The fact is, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries when it comes to federal noise protection standards.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

The New York Times did a recent “sound tour” of Manhattan, using a noise dosimeter to measure decibel levels at 37 businesses including gyms, shops, bars and restaurants. Guided by Rick Neitzel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center, the dosimeter used A-weighting, a science that mimics the human ear’s sensitivity to sound at different frequencies.

Nietzel, who has a substantial background in noise exposure research, in New York City and elsewhere, formatted the dosimeter to record various doses, based on standards established by OSHA, the National Institute for Occupations Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The dosimeter was used to measure noise levels for exposure periods of 20 minutes to eight hours.

If you’re not familiar with how OSHA’s decibel exposure formula works, allow me to describe it as simply as possible. Basically, OSHA requires workers who are exposed to 90 decibels for eight hours to wear hearing protection.  Ninety decibels is the approximate noise equivalent of heavy truck traffic.

OSHA states that when noise increases by five decibels, the noise workers are exposed to actually doubles. That means workers who needed hearing protection when exposed to eight hours at 90 decibels can only work four hours without ear plugs if the decibel level goes up to 95.

This might seem reasonable, unless you have worked in a 90-95 decibel environment for years, in which case you’re probably suffering from tinnitus and some significant level of hearing loss, not to mention possible cardio-vascular illness, high blood pressure, stress, and a sleep disorder. And harmful noise exposure is not limited to industrial environments. Teachers exposed to classroom noise for years are suffering from serious hearing loss by the time they reach middle age. If you work in a noisy restaurant with lots of hard surfaces off of which noise ricochets,  or a bar in which conversations require yelling to be heard, or a gym with aerobics or spin class music blasting at 105 decibels – you’re probably at risk. Toll booth workers, shopping mall employees, telephone call center staff – and the list goes on, as noise today is an ubiquitous problem that many people have come to accept as part of daily life.

But other countries are doing a better job at complying with established noise standards. In fact, the U.S. is number 23 when it comes to noise exposure standards, tailing Argentina, Chile, Australia and the UK (to name just a few) in noise pollution protection.  Britain is taking noise pollution very seriously, as it proved last week when Hyde Park police pulled the plug on a Bruce Springsteen/Paul McCartney concert that ran 10 minutes past the community’s noise curfew.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

In fact, Britain has a Web site where people can calculate their daily doses of noise. Canada conducts audiological testing on its teachers annually to make sure they are not going deaf, and to take measures to protect those who are. Brazil and Australia have programs in place that call for routine risk assessments and revisions to broaden the scope of noise-related health and hearing protection and preventive initiatives.

Some powerful U.S. organizations may see to it that the U.S. stays at the bottom of the noise awareness pile despite the health risks of high decibel work environments. In 2010, OSHA reminded employers that providing earplugs for hearing protection in noisy work environments was only meant to be a temporary measure, and the agency would begin enforcing regulations requiring employers to soundproof noisy workplaces that did not comply with decibel limit recommendations. The move was necessary, OSHA representatives said, because too many workers were being harmed by workplace noise.

Additionally, the decibel limit was to be lowered to 85 – the same standard set in 21 of those 22 countries that rank ahead of the U.S. in noise exposure safety.  India, home of the world’s two noisiest cities (Mumbai and Kolkata) is the only other country with a 90 decibel worker safety threshold. Plus, under the stricter guidelines, employers would need to acknowledge the change to from five to three decibels doubling the risk of hearing loss.

Before it had a chance to reach public service announcement status, OSHA’s mandate was slapped down by the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, who claimed the revised guidelines would be too expensive.

Audiologist and President of the National Hearing Conservation Association Laura Kauth says that the general consensus of hearing health professionals is that the U.S. should be adopting the 85 decibel limit in the workplace, and acknowledging the three-decibel standard for noise dose doubling, since regardless of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce objections, U.S. employees are at risk under existing standards.

The New York Times study recorded the average noise level on a recent Saturday night at Manhattan restaurant Beaumarchais at 99 decibels. Under OSHA’s updated standards, exposure to the noise levels in this eatery becomes unsafe to workers after only 19 minutes on the job.

Enforcement of noise regulations at gyms, bars and restaurants in New York is largely non-existent. When employees complain about noise levels, their objections are almost never being reported to OSHA. Noise control proponents say that lack of awareness at the federal level could be partly to blame. The only federal department assigned to address environmental noise, the Office of Noise Abatement, was defunded 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan, and States were notified then that they would no longer receive federal assistance to curb noise pollution.

Just one month after OSHA proposed the stricter guidelines in 2010, the agency withdrew its proposal.

Rising Noise Pollution: a Bleak Future for Mumbai’s Youngest Citizens

You can’t help but feel for Mumbai. The commercial and entertainment capital of India, it ranks as a top 10 world commerce leader in terms of global financial flow, generating five percent of India’s GDP. Mumbai is responsible for 25 percent of all of India’s industrial output, 70 percent of the country’s maritime trade, and 70 percent of India’s economic capital transactions.

But Mumbai’s noise pollution is eviscerating its citizen’s quality of life and challenging the future of its children.

One of the world’s noisiest cities, Mumbai’s din is so severe that the future health of its residents is in question. In fact. levels of noise and air pollution in Mumbai are through the roof and rising, and the noise is having a marked effect on the sleep patterns and health of the people who live there.

In residential areas, recent studies show that noise levels have steadily increased both during the daytime and at night over the past five years. The city’s established “silence zones” are never silent, and noise levels measure in at 63 decibels (daytime) and 78 decibels (night time) – the allowed limits are 50 and 40 decibels respectively.  In Mumbai, areas within 100 meters (328 feet) of schools, hospitals, shrines and courts are designated as silence zones.

Mumbai has 1,112 designated silence zones that are routinely disregarded. In fact, noise in these silence zones has steadily increased over the past four years, and officials even admit that most people are unaware that silence zones exist in their communities.

According to Mumbian environmentalists and public health officials, its residents are unaware of the health hazards they face from the never-ending exposure to high decibel sounds. Heart attack rates are steadily increasing, and cardiologists blame Mumbai’s dismal noise pollution stats for triggering the stress hormones that increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack significantly. Mumbai’s high air pollution rates are exacerbating the health effects of the city’s noise, which leaves many Mumbian health officials to question what it will take to effectively address this burgeoning risk to the health and welfare of the general population.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

Mumbai has some serious obstacles to overcome if it is to ever address its noise pollution problem in any meaningful way. Its citizens are largely unaware of the fact that noise can cause them harm, although the Indian government does consider it a serious problem. By aligning itself with the World Health Organization, the Indian government has tried to establish standard noise caps for residential areas (55 decibels), commercial areas (65 decibels) and industrial areas (75 decibels). However these noise caps are violated daily and offenders are almost never admonished.

In Mumbai, like most of India’s cities, traffic noise is the primary cause of noise pollution, and there is no escape from the 24/7 cacophony of traffic-related sound, from construction to horns honking incessantly, night and day with no relief.  In 2008, to honor World Health Day, Mumbai held a “No Honking Day” – by all accounts a remarkable feat made possible only because of the Mumbai traffic police’s unwavering efforts to enforce the ban. Mumbai’s citizens had a taste of what it was like to experience a day without the unwelcome blaring of auto horns filling every waking minute. For the average Mumbai citizen, the respite was nice but only impeded one of the many sources of Mumbai’s daily noise monsters.

Predictions were that “No Honking Day” would lead to countless accidents and chaos among both motorists and pedestrians, although no problems occurred. Still, the one day moratorium didn’t scratch the surface of Mumbai’s very serious noise pollution problem.

Mumbai and Delhi, two of India’s most important metro areas, are also two of the world’s noisiest places, and the world in general is a dangerously noisy place.  Many organizations taking on the world’s noise pollution problems blame governments for waiting too long and not taking the health risks of noise pollution seriously. After all, just 40 years ago most of the world’s inhabitants had some place to go to escape noise levels that were a risk to their hearing and health. Today, the earth’s quiet spaces are growing smaller and more elusive from one year to the next.

As long as governments are in bed with corporations, the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens as well as the citizens of most of the world’s major metropolitan areas will never be a priority. Where is the follow-up to environmental reports telling us about the dangers of the noise to which ordinary citizens are subjected? When will the well-being of the people of Mumbai matter to its government more than the economic impact of regulatory compliance?

There’s got to be a Nobel Prize in it for the person who comes up with the answer. In the meantime, the children of Mumbai, Delhi, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and New York City (to name just a few of the world’s noisiest cities) are facing a future of hearing damage and loss, impeded learning, sleep disorders, elevated blood pressure and heart disease without ever having known any other life but one filled with noise.

Mumbai’s Nuisance Noise: Hearing Loss and Health Problems Escalate

You are stuck in traffic in Mumbai. A sea of vehicles surrounds you. You try to shut out noise from revved-up engines and impatient horns. The increasingly frantic crescendo, much like the grand finale from a work by Rachmaninov, makes you want to shoot little darts tinged with South American poisons at the drivers of the cars around you or pull an Ambani and hail a passing helicopter.

Interrupting your desperate escape to your happy place is your auto rickshaw guy, honking. He presses his thumb on the button, holds it there and doesn’t let go.

Mumbai’s three-wheeled menace.

After years of traveling by public transport, I have realized it is the autorickshaw driver above all who really loves to blow his own horn at miles of insurmountable traffic spread out in front. There is no possible escape from the crushing noise in sight. Yet the indefatigable driver insists on repeated blasts of his horn, thinking this will solve the problem. What’s the point? I often ask them. Is the traffic ahead going to magically part like the Red Sea before Moses and let you through? You think the people ahead are all stuck in one spot on purpose, just to bug you? A non-committal or puzzled look or a lecture all the way to your destination are the only two responses.

I sit in the midst of all the cacophony, slowly grinding my teeth, considering banging my head against the side of the seat to ease the pain. Or getting those embarrassingly large noise canceling headphones. Or writing a letter to car manufacturers. “Dear Sirs, Can we just do away with horns altogether? Are they really needed?” Apparently they are, as one autorickshaw driver I asked said, as in the absence of horns, drivers would end up running down most pedestrians.

Noise-induced hearing damage is related to duration and volume of exposure — safe exposure being not more than 85dB for about eight hours. At 100 dB or more, damage can take place in 15 minutes. The level from which humans can begin to identify sounds is 10 to 15dB. At the other end is the threshold of pain — 140 dB. Prolonged exposure to this level can cause pain, nausea and loss of muscle control. Noise as a form of torture has been used by governments against perceived enemies, detainees and prisoners for a long time. The Nazis employed it. In 2003, the BBC reported that the U.S. Army had used Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I Love You” to torture Iraqi detainees, playing the songs at high volume over and over.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

Now compare that statistic to the ear-blasting 145dB we are exposed to during festivals like Ganpati, where the level is equivalent to being close to a jet engine on take-off. Or the 127dB football players were exposed to from the thousands of vuvuzelas at the World Cup this year. No wonder that players have asked for a ban on the instrument with the drone-attack sound. Argentinean football player Lionel Messi complained about the vuvuzelas after Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Nigeria. It is impossible to communicate, he said, it’s like being deaf.

Maybe Messi should try visiting Mumbai sometime to get used to that feeling of being stuck inside a vuvuzela zone, night and day, and that’s your life.

The growing racket against noise is not surprising since its pollution, like any other environmental issue, is increasingly being viewed as a human rights issue. In October 2009, the International Euronoise Conference was held in Edinburgh, with 800 delegates discussing noise pollution as an environmental concern. Here’s why:

Silent zones of zero tolerance

Unfortunately, at this point, the only solution is zero tolerance. Whatever the event — whether it’s a festival, a neighborhood party or construction near his building, if the noise generated is breaking rules, call the police station and file a complaint. The Environment Protection Act makes noise pollution a non-bailable offense and stipulates a jail term of five years and a hefty fine of Rs 100,000.

Recently, I had to look up the rules on noise when, late in the night, my windows started shaking due to the noise from a party next door. Under the Environmental Protection Act of 1986, and the Rules on Noise 1989, and Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000, noise is classified as a pollutant. And just so you know, the maximum decibel levels permitted are as follows: Industrial areas 70 db (10 p.m. – 6 a.m.) to 75 dB (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.); similarly, commercial areas must stay between 55 dB and 65 dB. In residential zones it’s 45 dB to 55 dB.

Now we just need to get the message to the 22 lakh vehicles in Mumbai, the 8,000 buses, 55,000 taxis and the swarm of autorickshaws – god bless them.

India Cracks Down on Noise Pollution During Diwali Festivities

As noise pollution becomes a global epidemic, India — home to three of the world’s noisiest cities: Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata — has taken dramatic measures to establish quiet and privacy in a society inundated with the noise problems that accompany modern life. Indians are increasingly installing noise barriers and soundproofing materials in their homes, yards and businesses as noise pollution awareness grows.

India’s Supreme Court has put strict noise ordinances in place in an attempt to curtail unwanted and unnecessary sounds that are creating health problems in its citizens, and contributing to an unhealthy environment. Some Indians are embracing their new responsibility to tone down the ambient noise, particularly in the biggest cities, and adopting an environmentally friendly approach to some long held traditions.

One example is the upcoming celebration of Diwali, an annual Hindu festival of lights marked by large family gatherings, bursting firecrackers, raucous air horns, and lighting clay lanterns to signify the triumph of good over evil. Diwali takes place over five days in October and November.

Much like fourth of July celebrations in America, Diwali is not complete without its noisy elements – fireworks and air horns, most specifically. This year, however, Hindus living in India’s capital city of Delhi and other major metro areas plan to tone down their celebration of Diwali by opting for eco-friendly firecrackers and abstaining from using air horns, in order to lower noise levels.

India’s lowered noise standard is a growing trend but still catching on across the country. To make sure that firecrackers and air horns do not become a public nuisance this year, law enforcement will be working throughout the festival to remind celebrants to keep the noise down.

Global Noise Pollution Issues
Global Noise Pollution Issues

District administrations and the police plan to impose a total ban on the loudest firecrackers (exceeding decibels of 125, comparable to the sound of a tire blowout), in keeping with the new guidelines governing noise pollution levels across India.

Offenders can be arrested and even jailed under India’s Noise Pollution (Regulation & Control) Rules and the Environment Protection Act, and the guilty could be fined up to Rs 1 lakh  (2,250.00 U.S. dollars) or face imprisonment for up to five years.

All the major cities are demanding eco-friendly fireworks, made of recycled paper and contain fewer chemicals than traditional versions, which makes them quieter and emit less smoke and harmful toxins.

Delhi and Kolkata lead in the purchases of eco-friendly fireworks, which actually cost less than traditional fireworks.

 Residents in rural areas and small towns still prefer traditional firecrackers, but city residents insist they can celebrate with the green alternatives to noisy firecrackers without sacrificing festival fun.

Indian authorities and the pollution control board are also making it mandatory for firecracker manufacturers to mark each product with its corresponding level of noise pollution.

Last week, Kolkata police raided several parts of the city to identify shops selling prohibited air horns. Shop owners caught selling banned air horns were summoned to the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) office for a hearing

The use of air horns and the rampant use of banned firecrackers, particularly during the weeks before and after Diwali, are a major source of noise pollution across India. WBPCB authorities and the police plan to conduct raids during Diwali. However, with the exception of a few arrests, little is done to prevent banned fire crackers from entering city markets.

Although noise ordinances established in India may seem harsh to some, they represent a growing awareness of the dangers of noise pollution in communities across the globe, and a growing trend toward managing noise, just as other forms of pollution have been addressed in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century. India is already proving itself to be a leader when it comes to quieting the world.

India’s Growing Noise Pollution Problem: Bangalore Makes the List

Bangalore, India’s third most populous city, long considered the garden city and India’s Silicon Valley earned the dubious distinction last week of being ranked the country’s seventh noisiest city.

Considered one of the top 10 entrepreneurial centers of the world, Bangalor is also an educational, cultural, and economic hub – the second fastest growing city in India. Bangalor citizens have been worried about rising air pollution levels which also threaten most of India’s major cities. But this latest announcement, the result of new findings by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), has confirmed growing fears about Bangalor’s noise pollution levels.

In a statement issued Sunday, Dr. A. S. Sadashivaiah, chairperson of the KSPCB, named Mumbai as India’s top noise polluter, followed by Kolkata, Delhi, Lucknow, Chennai Hyderabad and Bangalore. The city’s increasing crush of roadway traffic and vehicular density, combined with construction activity, use of diesel generators, and the familiar blaring loudspeakers are being blamed for the City’s noise levels, which far exceed ordinance caps for noise in residential and commercial zones.

What makes these findings even more eye-opening is the fact that Bangalore’s industrial areas are actually faring better than commercial and residential areas as far as noise levels are concerned, with decibel levels only slightly exceeding permissible levels in industrial areas. However, commercial and residential areas consistently measured noise as high as 40 decibel levels over ordinance limits, even at night.

The study was instigated by the CPCB, and a committee was formed to identify the City’s noisiest zones. The study incorporated certain parameters such as the number of vehicles, extensive random horn honking, chaotic driving, the use of diesel generators, loudspeakers, and construction and development in progress.

In industrial areas, the acceptable noise limit by day is 75 decibels, and by night it is 70 decibels. Commercial zones are mandated to remain at or below 65 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night. Residential zones are further mandated to keep decibel levels down to 55 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night.

Global Noise Pollution Issues

Engineers measured noise levels at 14 separate locations, incorporating industrial locations like International Tech Park, Bommasandra and Yelahanka; commercial areas such as Koramangala, Jalahalli, Yeshwantpur, Bengaluru International Airport and K. R. Puram; and residential areas including Ulsoor near Someshwara temple, Kengeri, Vijayanagar, Hanumanthanagar and sensitive or silent zones such as ESI Rajajinagar, ESI Indiranagar and Victoria Hospital.

Sensitive zones such as ESI Rajajinagar, ESI Indiranagar and Victoria Hospital measured decibel levels one and a half times above than permissible limits – 85.5 decibels at ESI Indiranagar, 79.5 decibels in ESI Rajajinagar, and 79 decibels in the Victoria Hospital area. The health risks identified with constant exposure to noise levels this high include hearing loss, increased risk of heart attacks, stress and stress related illnesses, and hypertension. It can also exacerbate other existing medical conditions, particularly in children and the elderly.

Hospital patients subjected to loud noise during a recovery period heal more slowly, experience sleep disorders, and can actually develop new illnesses from the constant exposure to noise when their bodies are working overtime to heal from surgery, illness or injury. Remember, these zones have legal caps of 55 and 45 decibels respectively.

Another surprise is the study’s conclusion that construction on the Bangalore Metro is not contributing to the city’s high noise pollution levels. Study officials found that the Metro construction project had been adhering to its mandated noise limits. Construction noise that did contribute to the study’s findings was found to be coming from other developments and private construction. 

Ten noise monitoring locations have been identified by the KSPCB, and noise monitoring devices are installed at five junctions operate 24/7.  Another five are schedule to be installed in the near future.

Bangalor is a vital and vibrant city, an international hub for commerce, scientific research, cultural treasures, academic resources, and world travelers. It is disheartening to see noise pollution levels at such heights in such an important location. It is heartening that India’s leaders are addressing the problem, and the hope is that they will come up with a solution – and fast. Noise pollution is a global epidemic, but lately it seems that cities throughout India are particularly vulnerable.

The health risks in this environment are many, and high. Bangalor, like every other world city facing a noise pollution crisis, needs to act fast to educate its citizens, and take action to lower the decibel levels. Bangalor is a high octane city that must be saved from its own clamor!

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