COMS 130 – Speaker-Audience Communication
Professor SchimekSeptember 2018
Noise Pollution: Harm, Causes and Local Considerations
As a resident of Kansas, I am lucky to live in the country, where noise exposure is generally under my own control. On a typical day, the average decibel rating on my front porch is 37 decibels. Even on a day when farm equipment can be heard off in the distance, the top decibel reading I have taken at my home is 47 decibels. This is not the case in Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence is affected by noise pollution, much like all cities. The primary sources of noise pollution are traffic, construction sites, aircraft, trains, entertainment venues, and other industrial noise. These sources of noise have different effects on different people, as well as animals, that inhabit Lawrence, and other cities. This is due to how close they are to the noise, and how long they are exposed. For this reason, Lawrence has created noise ordinances in order to help minimize the issue.
Living in a family with two professional audiologists, I learned at an early age about hearing protection, and how sound is measured. The term decibel (dB) is used to a measure and explain the intensity of a sound. Done on a logarithmic scale starting at 0 dB, which is near complete silence. It is sometimes difficult to understand because while a sound 10 times more powerful than silence is rated at 10 dB, a sound 100 times more powerful than silence is rated at 20 dB. This continues as a sound 1000 times more powerful is rated at 30 decibels and the follows the same pattern. To better understand the topic, by making some comparisons from my own life, I took the following decibel readings as examples:
20 dB – Wind through the leaves from my porch swing
33 dB – Small brook on the back of our property
52 dB – Truck passing our house (gravel road)
57 dB – My family talking inside our home
69 dB – Shower running
92 dB – Lawn tractor
114 db – John Deere full size tractor
126 dB – Kansas Men’s Basketball Game
157 dB – 20 gauge shotgun on our land
The inescapable problem with noise pollution is that noise is part of almost everything we do, and it cannot be entirely eliminated. Industrial and transportation machinery, construction equipment, items used for personal entertainment, and even children’s toys add to the overall level of noise pollution. Noise can be minimized in most instances, or can be isolated to places where distraction and effects are minimal; this is the main reason why attempts are made to locate industrial plants outside of areas in which populations reside.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, lists 70 decibels as the noise level where sound becomes damaging to humans and other living things. The immediate level of exposure does not always matter, as damage may also result from prolonged, or accumulated, exposure. Karl Kryter, a noted author on the subject of noise induced hearing loss, reports that “exposure exceeding eight hours of noise exceeding eighty-five decibels is hazardous and can result in the loss of hearing”.
At my home in rural Douglas County, I am approximately 11 miles from the KU campus. The sounds I hear when I am at home are completely different from those I hear when I go to school, or when I visit Lawrence for shopping, sightseeing or dining. Our family home is a ranch style so it is all on one level. To get to the front door you have to step up onto a very large covered deck, and at one end, past the front door, is a white porch swing. I sit in that porch swing to relax and study any day when the weather permits. I close my eyes as I rock back and forth, and I listen to the wind moving through the trees that line our driveway. I can hear the chickens in our chicken coop right around the corner from where I sit. They coo and talk to each other, sometimes flapping their wings to get up on top of the coop. I also hear Sophie and Sally, our two Nigerian Pygmy goats playing. They love to climb on the wooden structure my dad built for them, and I can hear their hooves hitting the wooden deck as they jump on and off chasing each other. Their bleating as they communicate with each other truly makes me smile. I cannot imagine not being able to hear the sounds than I love.
When I go into Lawrence, I am faced with completely different sound profiles than at home. As an example, downtown Lawrence averages a decibel reading of about 70 decibels during an average workday. I measured a low of 42 dB and a high of 91 dB when diesel delivery trucks were nearby. These are generally lower than what would be expected for an “urban environment” as Lawrence is not a large city.
Noise can have several negative effects on human beings, and other animals. The main impact among them is permanent hearing loss either in part or in total. In her 2017 article “Healthy Hearing,” Brandy Plotnick reported, “an estimated sixteen million workers in the US factories miss work every year due to complications resulting from noise pollution, and estimates place the impact at a four billion dollar loss to the U.S. economy”. Interestingly, noise receives the least attention of environmental pollutants. Noise pollution is not visible, and this fact contributes to the lack of reaction to the issue in general.
Noise pollution negatively impacts the quality of life of those living in urban environments, at a higher degree due to their proximity to industries, transportation, and the larger number of entertainment venues. These urban centers are characterized by a large number of people living in close proximity to each other. Several countries, however, have taken noise pollution as a serious matter and taken several initiatives to control noise pollution. The United States Government, for example, created the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from job related safety issues, including those related to noise induced hearing loss due to exposure. The European Union, requires noise maps for cities in order to control the exposure of the population to excessive noise. The Netherlands does not allow construction of houses for human inhabitation in areas where the average noise in every twenty-four hours exceeds above 50 decibels. The Noise Act of Great Britain empowers law enforcement and local authorities to confiscate all noisy equipment and charge fines to people making excess noise at night. The Noise Act of the Great Britain also requires developers to install porous asphalt technology with the capacity to curtail traffic noise by up to five decibels (Stansfield et al).
One of the greatest negative effects of noise pollution is noise induced hearing loss (NIDL). In order to understand how noise induced hearing loss occurs, we first need to understand the way in which we hear. The shape of our outer ear funnels sound into the ear canal and towards the eardrum. The eardrum (tympanic membrane) vibrates due to the sound and sends vibrations to the three tiny bones in the middle ear. These three bones are the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus) and the stirrup (stapes); and amplify the vibrations and send them to the inner ear (cochlea). Inside the cochlea are tiny hair-like cells. These cells react to the vibrations by releasing neurochemical messengers that turn the sound waves into electrical signals. The auditory nerve the carries the electrical signals to the brain, which translates it into sound. When we are exposed to single loud noise events, or when we are exposed to noise levels of 70 dB or above for an extended period of time, the hair-like cells inside our inner ear are damaged. Over time, they die, and our body does not have the ability to regenerate these cells. This noise induced hearing loss can cause loss of hearing in specific frequency ranges, or our ability to hear altogether. (Kryter)
Noise pollution has also been shown to cause several psychological effects on humans and other animals. Among these is nervous tension and anxiety, chronic headaches and the loss of appetite, increased secretion of the pituitary gland. Increased exposure to noise pollution also affects muscles and other internal organs due to increased inflammation of the nerve cells. The adverse effects noise exposure can have on a person has prompted the increased interest in noise pollution and measures meant to protect the populations from excessive noise pollution (Atamca et al.).
The City of Lawrence, Kansas has made several attempts to mitigate the effects of noise pollution on the local residents. Among these measures is the enactment of Lawrence noise ordinance, “Loud and Unnecessary Noise Prohibition of the Nuisance Act.” According to the noise ordinance, “it is unlawful for any person to make, allow or continue to make any unnecessary, excessive, loud and unusual noise which endangers the comfort of others, creates a nuisance, injuries, repose or affects the safety of other people. Noise interfering with the enjoyment of property of any person of reasonable sensibilities residing in or occupying the area is prohibited, unless the making or continuation in the making of such noise is necessary for the protection and preservation of the said property or the health and safety of an individual”. The act specifically declares certain activities as nuisance noise, and a violation of this section, making them unlawful. These items are, “the playing of any radio device, musical instrument sound amplifier and a similar device that amplifies sound in such a manner or intensity to annoy, cause distress, disturb the quiet, repose and comfort of a person of reasonable sensibilities within the vicinity or hearing range of the said noise. Steam whistles, the blowing of steam whistles attached to any stationary boiler except when being used to give notice of the opening and closing of an institution or establishment, or indicating initiation and end of work or give warning” (Noise Ordinance).
Although the ordinance was most recently published in 2017, it is clear from the items included that updates have not occurred for many years. Brian Jimenez, Code Enforcement Manager for the City of Lawrence Kansas stated to me “the regulations have not kept up with population changes or advancements in technology”. This is demonstrated by the fact that instead of references to decibel readings, the ordinance classifies any noise from a stationary source as either loud, unnecessary or unusual as unlawful “as prohibited by the ordinance”.
Just the other day I took average decibel readings in various locations in Lawrence. These readings were taken Downtown (9th and New Hampshire), South (31st & Iowa), Northwest (6th and Wakarusa) and on campus outside of Allen Fieldhouse. Each location was measured over a 3-hour period using an electronic dosimeter loaned to me by my father. The dosimeter measured levels constantly and provided the data listed below:
Downtown South Northwest Campus
High dB Rdg. 102 91 87 92
Low dB Rdg67 58 55 51
Avg dB for 3 hrs83 79 72 71
Observations Construction and traffic Siren, traffic Traffic noise Police sirens. Overall lowest
Primarily due to traffic and construction noise, each of the four locations demonstrated an average decibel rating over 70 decibels. While it takes a higher level to cause immediate damage, constant exposure at these levels can become an issue. The high readings in each location were enough to cause damage, and the construction noise in downtown Lawrence is reaching peaks at dangerous levels.
While the Lawrence City Commission has made positive strives, in attempting to control noise pollution, there is a lot that could still be done. Among them is the controlling of noise from construction activities. Construction, unlike industrial activities, is not confined to specific locations. Construction takes places in residential, commercial and even industrial centers, depending on the specific job. Construction also involves the use of heavy machinery, and sometimes earthmovers, resulting in noise pollution whose intensity varies based on the kind of machinery being used and the specific activity. Workers inside the construction site are usually protected using OSHA mandated personal hearing protection, however, persons residing in the construction site proximity are exposed to the high decibel level noise. While taking readings on the sidewalk across the street from a construction site in downtown Lawrence recently, over a 30- minute period, decibel readings averaged 83 decibels; with a spike of 91 decibels. The city could better protect residents by creating an ordinance regulating noise from construction sites. Contractors could be required to take decibel level measures minimizing the intensity of noise that comes from machinery used in construction sites. Sound muffling technology is already available and in use in cities where these requirements already exist.
Another area where the Lawrence City Commission can intervene is the regulation of the level of noise from entertainment establishments. As an example, over the last several years, Lawrence has allowed the building of several downtown apartment buildings on New Hampshire Street. This is also in an area of Lawrence where many bars and venues featuring live music entertainment are located. These venues add to the local flavor and character of Lawrence, but noise emanating from the establishments puts the long-term hearing health of those residing in the neighborhood at risk. As an example, on a recent Friday evening I was able to take decibel readings outside of the “Bottleneck,” a local bar offering live music. Normal readings with the doors closed were just under 65 decibels, but the decibel levels spiked to over 100 decibels (averaged 102 dB) every time the doors opened. Clearly a danger for residents in the vicinity. Even across the street, the decibel levels exceeded 85 decibels at times. For this reason, the Lawrence City Commission should limit the level of noise emerging from such establishments, especially at night. This can be done immediately by enforcing the spirit of the noise ordinance and requiring these businesses to install sound dampening materials.
The city has played a role in requiring that developers use asphalt coating on roads close to residential buildings. These coatings are required to absorb up to five decibels of noise. This helps people residing close to busy roads by lowering exposure to constant noise pollution from traffic. In another attempt to lessen the impact of noise pollution on residents of the city, the zoning of residential, commercial and industrial sections of the city ensures that excessive noise is isolated to areas not inhabited by humans. Zoning has reduced instances where residents could be negatively impacted by establishments and industries producing higher levels of noise pollution.
The most important thing we can do to reduce the damage of noise pollution is to educate the population. While most of us understand that very loud noises can harm us, the vast majority don’t realize that lower noises over a period of time can actually be more harmful. There are several apps available for both Apple and Android phones, which measure decibel levels and provide the information necessary for our own personal protection. I would encourage each of you to download one and look at the sounds you are exposed to in your own life. By measuring your own personal exposure, and understanding when hearing protection is beneficial, we can all reduce the chance of noise induced hearing loss.
Atmaca, E, et al. “Industrial Noise and Its Effects on Humans.” Journal of Environmental Studies, vol. 14.6, 2005.
Jimenez, Brian. Personal Interview. November 17, 2017
“Kansas Noise Ordinance 2017.” City of Lawrence, KS, City of Lawrence, KS, 2017, lawrenceks.org/police/noise-problems/.
Kryter, Karl D. The Effects of Noise on Man. Elsevier, 2013.
“Noise Induced Hearing Loss.” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), U.S. Department of Health ; Human Services, 2017, www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise-induced-hearing-loss.
“Noise Induced Hearing Loss.” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), U.S. Department of Health ; Human Services, 2017, Web www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise-induced-hearing-loss.
Plotnick, Brande. “Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).” Healthy Hearing, Healthy Hearing, 11 May 2017, www.healthyhearing.com/help/hearing-loss/noise.
Stansfield, Stephen A, and Mark P Matheson. “Noise Pollution: Non-Auditory Effects on Health.” British Medical Bulletin, vol. 68.0, 2003, pp. 243–257.