Lentis/Noise pollution

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On October 14, 1947, Captain Chuck Yeager of the United States Air-force flew the Bell X-1 to produce the first ever sonic boom from an airplane. [1] A sonic boom is created when an object travels at a speed that breaks the sound barrier. After military research, many became attracted to super sonic development giving rise to the concept of noise pollution. Consequently, education on it's social and environmental effects arose leading to government regulation and legislation.


As super sonic research and development rose so did the concept of noise pollution. As the number of sonic booms increased from 1947 onward, the use of the phrase noise pollution followed. The term originated around the 1970's and can be directly correlated to the rise in the number of sonic booms as visualized in the graphics to the right. An early reference to the phrase can be seen in a 1968 report written by the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) on aircraft noise. [2] This assessment evaluated the impacts of advancements in aircraft technologies while analyzing its growth and noise affects in society and the environment. Since the first sonic boom produced from an airplane in 1947, NASA continued research into the phenomenon and started the High-Speed Research Program (HSR) to develop a supersonic passenger jet. [1]

One of the most important and successful supersonic transportation jets developed was the Concorde. The Concorde was a British-French invention that operated until 2003. [3] Excessive noise from the aircraft's engines at take-off and landing was a major reason the Concorde lost popularity among potential buyers. Richard Wiggs, the founder of the Anti-Concorde Project, challenged the economical and social viability these aircraft brought by arguing they created unnecessary sonic booms, were unprofitable, increased airport noise levels, and faced major international opposition. [4] Therefore, the aircraft was limited to supersonic speeds over the ocean to reduce noise pollution over populated regions and reduce damage to property.


The unit of measurement used to quantify noise is the decibel (dB) which is measured on a logarithmic scale. It is important to note that humans can hear anything from 0 dB to 140 dB, but long term exposure to noise over 85 dB can cause hearing loss over time.[5] Sounds at or above 140 dB can cause the human ear pain and permanent damage. Anything that produces noise can be classified as a noise pollutant. A few of the major offenders of classification include: aircraft, traffic, construction, trains, and loudspeakers. These sounds are more likely to be found and heard in densely populated regions such as cities rather than rural areas. For further consideration here are a few examples of noises with their decibel levels: [5]

  • Quiet Office- 40dB
  • Traffic- 85dB
  • Lawn Mower- 95dB
  • Car Horn- 110dB
  • Subway Station- 115dB
  • Ambulance Siren- 120dB
  • Chain Saw- 125dB
  • Airplane taking off- 140dB
  • Fireworks- 162dB
  • Handgun- 166dB
  • Rocket Launch- 180dB
  • Sonic boom- 213dB

Effects to Wildlife[edit]

The increase in ambient noise has had a large effect on many species of land and marine life. Bats and owls rely heavily on sound to find prey in the dark. Many species unable to hunt with high levels of background noise have been forced to move further from human noise to find prey substantially reducing their habitat as 83% of land in the United States is less than one kilometer from a road according to the BBC.[6] Species of birds that use calls to find mates have taken to calling at night versus their normal morning and daytime calling in areas of high daytime noise.[7] These effects have breached over even into the protected areas of our national parks a study finding that 63% of protected land was twice as noisy as it should be.[7] This has many ecologists worried about the effects to biodiversity and evolutionary trajectories.[8]

The Oceanic Preservation Society stated that “sound is to underwater creatures as sight is to humans,” being particularly important to whales and dolphins.[8] Nature Education found that there has been a 16-fold increase in the underwater background noise due to shipping.[9] The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found that the largest effect on whales to be military sonar finding that mid-frequency sonar can have as much effect on a whale’s hearing as a jet engine at takeoff only three feet from a human.[9]

Effects to Public Health[edit]

Noise pollution can have a number of adverse effects to public health. Hearing loss is the most direct result of long term noise exposure caused most commonly by workplace exposure to loud construction and industrial equipment with 22 million US workers exposed to hazardous noise levels at work.[10] Study’s conducted by the National Institute of Health have also found a link between noise exposure and increased occurrence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.[10] The World Health Organization found that one third of Europeans are exposed to harmful levels of noise in traffic and one fifth are exposed to harmful levels during sleep.[11]


The desire to reduce noise levels has driven the creation of many noise blocking and quieter technologies many of which have improved quality of life but some solutions create new problems. Noise cancelling headphones have become popular as a method of blocking noise. They came at a cost to awareness though as the headphones didn’t block just background noise but all noise including alerts and voices. Recently companies such as Bose and Sony have created “aware modes” for their noise cancelling headphones which, “block certain background noises while still allowing the user to be aware of most ambient sounds."[12] Electric motors are substantially quieter than traditional combustion engines which at first glance appears to be a great solution to reducing noise pollution from traffic but pose a threat to pedestrians that rely on the sound of the engine to alert them of an approaching car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that pedestrians are considerably more likely to be hit by a hybrid or electric vehicle.[13] To combat this artificial vehicle sounds have been pushed as a requirement in electric vehicles by organizations such as the NHTSA and the National Federation of the Blind, which represents a particularly impacted group.[14] Commercial jet engine design has focused on noise reduction as the number of planes continues to increase. Current research by Pratt and Whitney, General Electric, and ENOVAL, a European company, into increasing fan diameter could reduce noise by as much as 50% by 2025.[15][16]

Noise Regulation[edit]

Early Noise Regulation[edit]

Government noise policy began as early as the 16th century when Julius Caeser responded to civilian noise complaints by banning night-time chariot travel in Rome.[17] Noise regulation wouldn’t peak until the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in Europe, as travel increased with improved roadway infrastructure and aviation. The U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was created to strengthen European economics after WWII; however in May 1971, the group sponsored an environmental conference, highlighting noise as a concern.[18]

The Scandinavian Building Council were among the first government agencies to implement noise abatement strategies into urban planning, including a minimum distance between roadways and buildings.[19]

United States of America[edit]

In 1972, the United States added the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) to its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It funded novel research on the health effects of noise and investigated management strategies. The first United States federal noise regulation was the Noise Control Act of 1972 (NCA). The act imposed a noise emission standard on “major sources of noise” such as military equipment and weaponry, roadway vehicles and aircraft.[20] However, diverse roadway systems across the country complicated the enforcement of standardized policies. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) veto power over the EPA deflected proposed regulations. The Quiet Communities Act of 1978 amended the NCA, by permitting the EPA to fund state and local government noise-regulation initiatives. The act also provided a check to the FAA’s power by requiring a public response to any EPA proposals.[21]

Reagan Administration[edit]

Shortly after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, he appointed Anne Gorsuch as the lead administrator of the EPA. Gorsuch, like Reagan, practiced New Federalism by downsizing federal agencies and shifting control to state and local governments. She cut the EPA budget by 22% while in office.[22] Congress ceased funding for ONAC in 1981, but did not repeal the Noise Control Act. Since the repeal, roadway and air traffic noise standards have been enforced by the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration. Local and state governments are prevented from changing noise abatement standards by the preemptive nature of the Noise Control Act.[21]

Local Initiatives[edit]

Despite federal inaction, local governments have effectively implemented noise regulation. New York City's first and existing noise code was created in 1985. Among regulated activities are construction procedures, animal noises, and ice cream truck jingles. Offenders can be reported and subjected to fines using a noise control hotline.[23] Portland has a similar report system with fines up to $5,000 in civil penalties for violations. [24]


The European Commission enacted the European Environmental Noise Directive in 2002 to mitigate Europe’s noise problems by requiring each country to submit Noise Maps and Noise Management Action Plans for major cities, roads, railways and airports. The policy doesn’t set targets, and leaves enforcement to “competent members” within each state.[18] These noise maps are available for view on the European Environmental Agency’s website [25] This data helps city officials identify problem areas, and allows noise consideration among potential homeowners and property developers.

The Environment Action Programme to 2020 was created recently to lower noise levels to the World Health Organization’s recommended range. The program requires an updated EU noise policy that reduces source noise, and updates city design standards.[18]


Implications of technology aren't always immediately evident, as they come in numerous forms. In this case, they were initially met with opposition. Development of supersonic transport was intended as a public luxury to reduce air travel time; however, the sonic booms produced were met with backlash to the chagrin of developers accustomed to the noise. This lead to public awareness of noise pollution and its dangerous effects on human and environmental health. Noise cancelling devices and improved highway design are examples of resulting management technology that continue to benefit society. This demonstrates that disruptive technology can indirectly produce a healthier society.

Additionally, localized regulation can be more effective than a federal standard. The Noise Control Act was intended to benefit US citizens, but the standardized regulation failed to reduce noise as conditions varied among states. Federal removal of the Office of Noise Control and Abatement in 1981 froze enforcement of the Noise Control Act. Shortly after, local governments began drafting successful noise ordinances that continue to control noise in major cities like New York and Portland. The European Environmental Noise Directive requires individual countries to create their own policy and noise maps rather than imposing a standard. As a result, Europe contains some of the quietest cities in the world. The federal government doesn't always fairly represent differing state concerns. Further evidence is the recent legalization of marijuana in certain US states despite federal prohibition. In these cases, local regulation can be more effective than a standardized federal approach.


  1. a b Redd, N. T. (2017, September 29). Breaking the Sound Barrier | The Greatest Moments in Flight. https://www.space.com/16709-breaking-the-sound-barrier.html
  2. National Research Council. 1968. Civil Aviation Research and Development: An Assessment of Federal Government Involvement: Economics of Civil Aviation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/20380
  3. Concorde. (2017, December 10). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concorde
  4. Anti-Concorde Project. World Heritage Encyclopedia. http://central.gutenberg.org/articles/Anti-Concorde_Project
  5. a b Claridge, S. (2016, March 15). Hearing Aid Know. How Loud Is Too Loud: Decibel levels of common sounds. https://www.hearingaidknow.com/how-loud-is-too-loud-decibel-levels-of-common-sounds
  6. Walker, Matt (October 14, 2009). Noise pollution threatens animals. Earth News, BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8305000/8305320.stm
  7. a b McQuate, Sarah (May 4, 2017). Human Noise in U.S. Parks Threatens Wildlife. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-noise-in-u-s-parks-threatens-wildlife/
  8. a b (November 20, 2013). Noise Pollution. Everything Connects. http://www.everythingconnects.org/noise-pollution.html
  9. a b Acoustic Pollution and Marine Mammals. Scitable, Nature Education. https://www.nature.com/scitable/spotlight/acoustic-pollution-and-marine-mammals-8914464
  10. a b Basner, M.; Babisch, W.; Davis, A.; Brink, M.; Clark, C.; Janssen, S.; Stansfeld, S. (October 30, 2013). Auditory and non-auditory effect of noise on health. Lancet. 383(9925):1325-1332. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61613-X.
  11. (2017). Noise. Regional Office for Europe, World Health Organization. http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/noise/noise
  12. (2017). Using Aware mode. Bose Corporation. https://www.bose.com/en_us/support/article/using-aware-mode-qc20-apple.html
  13. Norman, Don (February 7, 2014). What Noise Does the Electric Car Make? Technology Review, MIT. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/524241/what-noise-does-the-electric-car-make/
  14. (2017). Electric Vehicles, Noise Pollution. NoiseOFF. http://www.noiseoff.org/evs.php
  15. Hughes, Christopher E. (November, 2013). NASA Collaborative Research on the Ultra High Bypass Engine Cycle and Potential Benefits for Noise, Performance, and Emissions. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20140004373.pdf
  16. (2014). Ultra High Bypass Ration Aero Engines. ENOVAL. http://www.enoval.eu
  17. United States. Office of Noise Abatement and Control (2006). Public Hearings on Noise Abatement and Control, Volumes 4-6. U.S.
  18. a b c European Commission. Noise. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/noise/index_en.htm
  19. United States. Environmental Protection Agency. (1971). An Assessment of Noise Concern in Other Nations
  20. United States. Environmental Protection Agency. (2013, January 29). EPA History: Noise and the Noise Control Act. https://www.epa.gov/history/epa-history-noise-and-noise-control-act
  21. a b Airport Noise Law: Statutes and Regulations. http://airportnoiselaw.org/statutes.html#ordinances
  22. Anne Gorsuch Burford. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3418-2004Jul21.html
  23. New York City Department of Environmental Protection. A Guide to New York City’s Noise Code. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/noise_code_guide.pdf
  24. The City of Portland, Oregon. Noise Complaints. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/oni/63268
  25. Noise. http://noise.eea.europa.eu/