assert your right to peace and quiet

By Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly, Volume 25, Number 1 (2000)

noises are everywhere

Individuals who live in large urban centers have been told that they have to adapt to the noise — that is the price they have to pay for choosing to live in an urban environment. However, even in metropolitan cities individuals do not have to be constantly bombarded by noise — in their homes, their work environment, their places of pleasure. There are noise codes limiting noises to certain hours or to certain levels. Apartment dwellings have house rules protecting the residents. Health clubs have policies urging their instructors to keep the music lower. In New York City, the Parks Commissioner has designated sections of Central Park as “quiet zones.”

However, noise in not just an urban problem; suburbs and smaller communities are no longer immune to the perils of noise pollution, e.g.: overhead planes and helicopters, jet skis, leaf blowers. People across the country are reporting that noise is depriving them of their inherent right to some “peace and quiet.” Media stories on noise interfering with people’s lives are abundant, and several websites, including that of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are devoting more space to such noise stories.

assessing the numbers of individuals bothered by noise

It is true that individuals respond to the same level of noise in different ways, with some people very bothered, others slightly, and still others not at all. There is a also a difference in reaction depending on whether the noise occurs occasionally or whether it is a nightly occurrence, with more people tolerant of an occasional noise and fewer willing to tolerate noises that continue unabated, night after night. However, in trying to get an estimate of how many people are actually bothered by specific noises, researchers have generally concluded that these figures are difficult to ascertain because too few people, whatever the reason, complain about surrounding noises. This lack of sufficient data on the numbers of people actually disturbed by community noises has been a problem for psychologists who need these data to predict annoyance levels. More importantly, it indicates that the federal government, and local governments as well, have set policies regarding noise levels and their impacts on individuals without supportive data.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration has relied on the level of 65 dB DNL, a measure derived by measuring average sound levels in a twenty-four hour day, as the level below which people should not be bothered by aircraft noise. However, a study of noise at Westchester Airport cited by the Natural Resources Defense Council demonstrated that over

99 percent of the complaints to the airport’s noise office came from people living below the 65 dB DNL contour. This study casts doubt on the 65 dB DNL as the criterion by which to determine community noise. It also signifies that the FAA has been underestimating the adverse effects of aircraft noise on nearby communities. The FAA might counter argue that more studies are needed before it would consider reevaluating its techniques but has demonstrated no interest in supporting such research. That people living below the 65 dB DNL find no sympathetic ear at the FAA could explain why many stop registering complaints.

noise - not just an annoyance but a health hazard

There are a number of investigative studies that indicate noise is not simply an annoyance but rather a hazard to one’s physical and mental well-being. In fact, the federal government at one time accepted the findings that noise adversely affects mental and physical health. However, with the closing of the federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control in 1982, the government no longer acknowledges that noise is a serious health hazard, except in the case of hearing loss. Today federal agencies take the position that more data are needed to substantiate the noise/health link. Even if we were to accept their position that more studies are needed on noise and health, we can still conclude that there are sufficient correlative data to suggest a relationship. There certainly is enough to issue warnings about the potential dangers of noise to our health.

We may not have abundant proof that noise robs one of good health, but we do know that noise robs people of a good “quality of life.” Individuals living with frequent overhead flight report that their sleep is disrupted, as well as their television watching, reading, and conversation. People living near airports cannot open their windows nor enjoy the outdoor areas surrounding their homes. Aircraft noises have precluded them from engaging in those activities that contribute significantly to a good “quality of life.” The findings that children’s cognitive, language and learning skills are impeded by noise are more than suggestive, and there is a strong belief that noise poses a serious threat to a child’s development.

noise complaints - who is listening?

Despite the many noise stories appearing in the media and the data indicating that noise is harmful to health, too often people who complain about noise are told to cope with or adapt to the disturbing sound. When some respond they can’t, they may be called peculiar or labeled as suffering from a psychological disorder. They are also told that their neighbors who are exposed to the same noises, overhead jets or loud music from a nearby bar, have learned to live with the noise. Such responses to noise complaints tend to lessen formal complaints to legal authorities and, eventually, these people stop talking to others about the bothersome noises. This does not mean they are no longer upset by the offensive sounds.

What happens to the individuals who are overwhelmed by invasive noises but have been told to “stop complaining?” Some adjust their sleeping schedules so that they won’t have their sleep disturbed by their noisy neighbors. Others find that they are constantly thinking about the noise and it assumes a dominant place in their lives at the expense of other activities in which they were once interested and involved. Many people after failing to correct the noise problem believe that they can’t do anything to stop the noise. Such people often assume a posture of learned helplessness and behave as if they have adapted to the noise. However, if you were to tap into their inner feelings, they will express a hatred of the noise and a disgust at themselves for allowing the noise to “win out.” All of these people have one thing in common — they have lost control over their lives!

becoming more vocal about noise

As noise becomes more ubiquitous in our everyday life, and as more people in our society have yielded to the “noise giant,” allowing it to control their lives, I am reminded of the character in the film “Network” who finally took charge of his life by shouting out his window that he won’t take it anymore. I want to shout out to the many people who have been suffering the stress and pain inflicted by intrusive noises that they don’t have to take it anymore. They must regain control over their lives, and the one way to do this is to battle the offensive noise. A simple request to stop the noise may have failed, but a battle in which you are armed with appropriate tactics or supported by others similarly distressed by the noise may lead to success.

Some noises may be easily stopped, such as noises of malfunctioning cooling units in neighborhood stores. Other noises such as those emanating from overhead jets will require many years of diligent work and loads of patience. However, whether you see an immediate victory or have to hope for one in the distant future, engaging in activities to lessen or remove the noise will allow you to regain control over you own life. Knowing that you have the strength to advocate on your own behalf will give you back the dignity and self-worth you lost when you allowed the noise to become the victor. When engaged in a conflict to reroute the overhead planes or restrict the expansion of an airport, smaller victories along the way often sustain individuals for the longer battle. These “partial wins” do much to bolster our confidence.

combat the noise intruder and regain control over your life

  1. First ask yourself: Would a person of normal sensitivities be bothered by this noise? All of us should expect a little noise is our lives, especially those who live in crowded, urban environments. However, is this noise one that most people would not tolerate? Some examples: loud cooling unit in nearby store, loud music from neighborhood bar, boiler in the state of disrepair, numerous overhead jets or helicopters, extremely noisy leaf blowers. If you conclude that most people would be bothered by the noise, then you are right in deciding to do something to curtail it.
  2. If the offender is a neighbor, then speak to him/her about the noise problem. It would be helpful to provide materials indicating that noise is now considered a health hazard. Information on the dangers of noise can be obtained from the Center for Hearing and Communication.
  3. If the neighbor is non-responsive and you live in a multiple dwelling complex, contact the landlord or managing agent and state that you are entitled to the “peaceful enjoyment of your apartment.” If those in charge don’t help resolve the problem, then contact the environmental agency or the police department. Some towns have mediation boards to handle neighbor complaints. Local public officials can also be asked to assist. As a last resort, seek legal redress, factoring in the cost.
  4. If the noise emanates from a neighborhood establishment, then others are also being bothered by the noise. Knock on some doors and ask neighbors to join you in forming a group to act on the problem. There is strength in numbers! Then as a group contact the owner or manager of the establishment disturbing the community. Also enlist the assistance of community boards or block associations. Again public officials and environmental agencies could be of assistance.

If the noise involves a major new highway, a railroad structure, or increased aviation traffic, a quick solution should not be expected; much time and energy will have to be devoted to the issue. These noise problems are best addressed by groups. Find out if one is already in operation and join in. If not, you and a few neighbors should start your own organization and then actively enlist others in your project. Become knowledgeable about the noise problem and seek out possible solutions. Go to the media and publicize the noise problem. Don’t forget to include local community newspapers. Enlist your public officials and expect them to join you in your efforts.