noise pollution

noise pollution, human-created noise harmful to health or welfare. Transportation vehicles are the worst offenders, with aircraft, railroad stock, trucks, buses, automobiles, and motorcycles all producing excessive noise. Construction equipment, e.g., jackhammers and bulldozers, also produce substantial noise pollution.

Noise intensity is measured in decibel units. The decibel scale is logarithmic; each 10-decibel increase represents a tenfold increase in noise intensity. Human perception of loudness also conforms to a logarithmic scale; a 10-decibel increase is perceived as roughly a doubling of loudness. Thus, 30 decibels is 10 times more intense than 20 decibels and sounds twice as loud; 40 decibels is 100 times more intense than 20 and sounds 4 times as loud; 80 decibels is 1 million times more intense than 20 and sounds 64 times as loud. Distance diminishes the effective decibel level reaching the ear. Thus, moderate auto traffic at a distance of 100 ft (30 m) rates about 50 decibels. To a driver with a car window open or a pedestrian on the sidewalk, the same traffic rates about 70 decibels; that is, it sounds 4 times louder. At a distance of 2,000 ft (600 m), the noise of a jet takeoff reaches about 110 decibels—approximately the same as an automobile horn only 3 ft (1 m) away.

Subjected to 45 decibels of noise, the average person cannot sleep. At 120 decibels the ear registers pain, but hearing damage begins at a much lower level, about 85 decibels. The duration of the exposure is also important. There is evidence that among young Americans hearing sensitivity is decreasing year by year because of exposure to noise, including excessively amplified music. Apart from hearing loss, such noise can cause lack of sleep, irritability, heartburn, indigestion, ulcers, high blood pressure, and possibly heart disease. One burst of noise, as from a passing truck, is known to alter endocrine, neurological, and cardiovascular functions in many individuals; prolonged or frequent exposure to such noise tends to make the physiological disturbances chronic. In addition, noise-induced stress creates severe tension in daily living and contributes to mental illness.

Noise is recognized as a controllable pollutant that can yield to abatement technology. In the United States the Noise Control Act of 1972 empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the limits of noise required to protect public health and welfare; to set noise emission standards for major sources of noise in the environment, including transportation equipment and facilities, construction equipment, and electrical machinery; and to recommend regulations for controlling aircraft noise and sonic booms. Also in the 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began to try to reduce workplace noise. Funding for these efforts and similar local efforts was severely cut in the early 1980s, and enforcement became negligible.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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