As the nation continues to focus on health care prevention through reform, one cause of serious illness and even death gets ignored — environmental noise pollution.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Network for Public Health Law say the problem not only takes its toll on hearing but contributes to heart disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, stress, learning problems and even injuries.

“I can’t think of any other environmental hazard that affects so many people and yet it is so ignored,” said Rick Neitzel, U-M assistant professor of environmental science, I a prepared statement.

In an article published in Environmental Health Perspectives, Neitzel and colleague Monica Hammer lay out a case for federal, state and local officials to address the issue that impacts an estimated 104 million people exposed at levels loud enough to cause serious noise-related health problems.

Everyone complains, nothing is done

“Everyone complains about noise, yet we do virtually nothing about it in this country,” Neitzel said. “Noise is really up there in terms of health problems it causes, but it gets no attention — especially compared to other common exposures such as air pollution.

“There are a lot of assumptions that noise exposure is self-inflicted, which is often not the case. We’d like to have people see connections beyond hearing loss and expand the conversation.”

In the article, Neitzel and Hammer call for noise to be included in the federal public health agenda and suggest ways state and local governments can then use the law to enact their own prevention measures to cover any shortfalls. The researchers point out that Congress has not considered the subject of noise in more than 30 years.

Included in their recommendations for the U.S. National Prevention Strategy (NPS), an organization representing 17 federal agencies responsible for prevention goals under the Affordable Care Act, are suggestions that the NPS:

Exert noise control through direct regulation, setting maximum emissions levels.

Require emissions disclosure on products, such as children’s toys.

Improve information dissemination about the dangers of noise.

Conduct more research to fully understand the impact of noise on the population.

The researchers also suggest ways states and local governments could fill the gaps:

Enact regulations on sources of noise that aren’t covered by the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agency.

Adopt procurement policies to reduce community noise caused by construction, emergency vehicles and maintenance equipment.

Take steps to build or renovate housing that protects people from noise.

The EPA has recommended limits over a 24-hour period for noise exposure in residential areas of 55 A-weighted decibels (dBA) to protect the public from all adverse health effects, and 70 dBA to prevent hearing loss.

Neitzel’s recent research includes a 2012 study showing that 90 percent of New York City urban mass transit riders may be at risk of some permanent, irreversible noise-induced hearing loss caused by train and occupational noises and Mp3 player use.

“Evidence shows that people exposed to unwanted noise develop a learned helplessness response. We end up believing that there is nothing that can be done to change our environment, when in fact there are many options available to us,” said Hammer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Visiting Attorney at the Network for Public Health Law Mid-States Region at U-M.

“Right now with the move to a national comprehensive health system, it pays to focus on prevention. If you only look at it from a monetary standpoint, we can save dollars in the long term and keep people healthy and living longer.”


(excerpted from Environmental Health Perspectives)

Source control through direct regulation: Direct regulation that sets maximum emission level for noise sources is the only intervention that guarantees population level exposure reductions. The NPS supports proven strategies, and source reduction is the most cost-effective intervention to protect health (García 2001). There is already evidence of the great potential for this approach in the U.S.: annual U.S. air transport

● Altering the informational environment: The NPS seeks to empower individual decision-making by addressing barriers to the dissemination and use of reliable health information. Altering the informational environment enables informed choice in partnership with direct regulation. Without source control, changing the informational environment can only offer limited reductions in noise because individuals often lack control over significant noise sources. However, several interventions have the potential to drastically alter the informational environment.

● Product Disclosure: Labels that disclose the noise emitted from products promote informed consumer choice. Mandatory labeling of noise emissions is required for certain products in China, Argentina, Brazil, and the European Union (EU) (NAE 2010). Disclosure will inform consumer choice only if the consumer understands the implications of what the label discloses, so we discuss product disclosures with the assumption that they will be accompanied by education.

● Mapping: Geographic noise maps alter the informational environment and are one way to ensure that noise control policy is based on objective and accurate information. The NPS seeks to expand and increase access to information technology and integrated data systems. Governments in the EU have already prepared noise maps of roads, railways, and airports (EU 2011).

Cities such as San Francisco have mapped traffic noise, but most cities and states would need federal support and guidance to initiate comprehensive mapping. However, mapping efforts will require a substantially increased and ongoing noise monitoring effort.

● State and local action: The NPS addresses the complex interactions between federal, state, tribal, local and territorial policies addressing community environments. It is important to note that the NCA was first enacted at the behest of industry trade groups which argued that national standards would protect manufacturers from the imposition of disparate and inconsistent state and local standards. After it was enacted, industry groups asked for a defunding of the NCA by asserting that it was best to control noise at the local level (Shapiro 1991).

● Spending and procurement: A number of municipal noise sources, including emergency sirens, transit vehicles, garbage and street maintenance equipment, and construction equipment (Bronzaft and Van Ryzin 2007) may be reduced through careful purchasing and contractual agreements.

● Altering the built environment: The NPS recommends that governments take steps to ensure safe and healthy housing because health suffers when people live in poorly designed physical environments (Perdue et al. 2003). Although altering the built environment can influence individual noise exposures, it often does not reduce noise source levels. In addition, it can be construed as inherently inequitable because the recipients of noise bear the burden of exposure reduction, and those creating the noise continue to have no incentive to reduce emissions.