Environmental Noise Pollution
Adopted January 2023
Description: Noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.1 The Vermont Public Health Association (VtPHA) recognizes the connection between environmental noise pollution and human health. Sources of noise include motor vehicles (cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, airplanes, trains, all-terrain vehicles); lawn and farm equipment; construction machinery; quarrying and other industrial noise; and loud music, car alarms, and firearms. Although Vermont is a largely rural state, it is not immune from excess noise. Complaints about loud motorcycles are frequently shared in community forums, and the F-35 fighter jets based at Burlington International Airport continue to be the subject of controversy.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines for community noise recommend less than 30 A-weighted decibels in bedrooms at night for good quality sleep, and less than 35 dB(A) in classrooms for good learning conditions. WHO’s guidelines for night noise outside of bedrooms recommend less than 40 dB(A) of annual average to prevent adverse health effects.2 Noise levels from many sources exceed these levels. The APHA says more than half of Americans are exposed to harmful levels of noise.
Airplane noise could increase in the coming years at the population of Vermont grows, due both to more airplanes flying in and out of the state, and an increase in private planes and runways. One expert mentions drones as a likely noisy technology in the near future.3 Another emerging source of noise is wind turbines. Electric vehicles and machines are quieter than gas-powered versions, so increased electrification – already a priority as a way of addressing climate change – can be part of the solution. However, noise from electric vehicles increases at higher speeds, so traffic noise from highways and other busy roads will not disappear as a concern.
Exposure to high noise levels is associated with elevated blood pressure, heart disease, hearing loss, sleep deprivation, ringing of the ears, headaches and chronic fatigue. One study estimated that 104 million Americans have annual noise exposures above 70 dBA (equivalent to a continuous average exposure level of >70 dBA over 24 hours) in 2013; they were at risk of hearing loss, while “tens of millions more may be at risk of heart disease and other noise-related health effects.”4 Excessive noise also contributes to decreased job and academic performance. Children and low-income and minority communities are especially vulnerable to noise pollution and its impacts. Much of the adverse health effects of noise exposure are due to feelings of powerlessness to control the noise. Because individuals cannot control noise made by others, this is an issue in which government is needed to take action.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulated noise pollution in the 1970s via several laws. In the 1980s, it largely withdrew from activity in this area. However, noise laws remain on the books and can help to address current issues. One such law requires that motorcycles meet federal noise standards and that each motorcycle include a label confirming that it meets these standards. It is illegal to modify, replace, or tamper with the motorcycle’s muffler so as to cause it to exceed federal noise standards5 - but excessively loud motorcycles result from their owners illegally taking these actions. The vehicle inspection process provides an efficient way to address this. Thus, the State should add the requirement for an EPA label for all motorcycles in Vermont and include this as part of state motorcycle vehicle inspections.6
Vermont’s statewide noise law is dated and covers only nighttime noise. Act 250 includes consideration of noise. But as with any public health issue, prevention is key, including addressing noise proactively rather than reactively. Recommendations of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) include developing and implementing clear zoning and planning policies on both the Act 250 and local levels to help avoid noise problems, as well as increased noise enforcement under Act 250.6
Protection of vulnerable groups can be increased through development of geographic noise maps. Measurement and mapping of noise levels “would identify priorities for additional evaluation and help inform protective measures,” according to one article – and would likely require federal assistance and funding.4 This could be helpful in parts of Vermont where growth is taking place quickly, and to protect racial minorities, lower-income groups, children, and other sensitive groups from high noise levels.
Relationship to Existing Policy Statements:
Policy Statement: The VtPHA recognizes noise pollution as an important public health issue and supports increased education, policy development, and enforcement to reduce environmental noise pollution in Vermont.
Fink D. A
new definition of noise: noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound. Noise is the
‘secondhand smoke’. Acoustical Society of America. Proc. Mtgs. Acoust. 39, 050002 (2019); doi: 10.1121/2.0001186. https://asa.scitation.org/doi/pdf/10.1121/2.0001186. Accessed Sept 17, 2022
2. World Health Organization. Noise. April 27, 2021. https://www.who.int/europe/news-room/fact-sheets/item/noise. Accessed Sept 18, 2022
3. Baird J. How loud is too loud? Burlington Free Press. Oct 6, 2014. https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2014/10/06/how-loud-is-too-loud/16810891/. Accessed Sept. 10, 2022
4. Hammer MS, Swinburn TK, Neitzel RL. 2014. Environmental noise pollution in the United States: developing an effective public health response. Environ Health Perspect 122:115–119; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307272
5. 40 CFR 205, Subpart D, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-G/part-205/subpart-D, and Subpart E, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-G/part-205/subpart-E. Accessed Sept 26, 2022
6. Personal communication with Les Blomberg, Executive Director, Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, Sept 2022
7. Quiet Communities. Quiet American Skies. https://quietcommunities.org/quiet-american-skies/. Accessed Sept 28, 2022
About the association
VtPHA is a membership organization which facilitates collaboration among people who care about public health and are interested in protecting and promoting the health of Vermont residents.
VtPHA is an Affiliate of the American Public Health Association (APHA). APHA is the national voice of public health and champions the health of all people and all communities. They are the only organization that combines a 140-plus year perspective, the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health and a member community from all public health disciplines and over 40 countries. Learn more at www.apha.org.
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