Rejoining the Battle against Noise Pollution

By Shapiro, Sidney A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Rejoining the Battle against Noise Pollution


Shapiro, Sidney A., Issues in Science and Technology


Congress should restore the Environmental Protection Agency's ability--eliminated a decade ago--to reduce excessive noise.

Many citizens, especially urban dwellers, face a cacophony of loud noises in their residences, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities. This almost ubiquitous din--noise pollution--can lead to hearing loss and possibly other physical and psychological problems. It is also simply annoying and detracts from the environmental ambiance that many people desire. At one time, the federal government set in motion a coordinated effort, working with state and local governments, to turn down the volume. But politics intervened, and the program was disbanded. The nation now seems louder than ever--and the situation calls for rejuvenating and redirecting the modest federal effort that once showed promise in controlling environmental noise.

EPA given mandate

The story begins in 1970, when Congress directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish an Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), which was to study noise and its effects on public health and welfare and submit a report for further legislation. Based on ONAC's report, which claimed that tens of millions of citizens were exposed to excessive noise levels, Congress passed the Noise Control Act of 1972. Its goal was to provide an "environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare."

Under the act, EPA assumed responsibility to, among other things, identify major sources of environmental noise, promulgate emission standards for a variety of products distributed in interstate commerce and for interstate motor carriers and railroads, propose regulations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for controlling aircraft and airport noise, require manufacturers to label products that emit excessive noise, facilitate development of quieter products, coordinate the noise abatement programs of other federal agencies, assist state and local abatement efforts, promote research, and foster public education on the sources and hazards of noise pollution. Congress later added to EPA's mandate by passing the Quiet Communities Act of 1978, which called for ONAC to beef up efforts to assist state and local governments and to promote health-effects research.

Like many other federal health and safety programs, ONAC had both successes and failures. It identified ten products for regulation, established emission standards for four of them (medium and heavy trucks, motorcycles, portable air compressors, and garbage trucks), proposed standards for two (buses and tractors), and took no action on four (power lawn mowers, rock drills, pavement breakers, and truck-mounted refrigeration units). It issued an emission standard for motor carriers and several standards for railroads, and proposed aircraft noise regulations to FAA. It wrote model state and local noise ordinances, and helped dozens of states and hundreds of municipalities develop noise abatement programs. It established a National Information Center for Quiet, distributed teaching materials to school systems and unions, produced public service television announcements, and published several hundred technical reports concerning noise abatement. On the other hand, critics assailed some of ONAC's regulations and cited its slowness to take action in various areas such as product labeling--perhaps not surprising for a fledgling government organization. Overall, ONAC's record, though mixed, represented a respectable beginning, and the office seemed to be gaining momentum.

National and local efforts, however, fell apart after 1981. Soon after President Reagan took office, the Office of Management and Budget told Congress that ONAC should be eliminated to help reduce the federal deficit. The administration's position was that noise control benefits are highly localized and abatement could be adequately carried out by states and communities without a federal program. …

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Rejoining the Battle against Noise Pollution
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