After a recent visit to the rooftop bar at the William Vale, a new luxury hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I came out sounding as hoarse as a pneumonia patient from having had to shout through my entire conversation because the music was literally deafening. If you have to raise your voice to talk to someone three feet away that means the sound is likely at 85 decibels or higher, which is the level at which the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program for workers. At the hotel bar, I measured the sound on my smartphone app at just over 95 decibels – enough to cause permanent hearing loss if you are exposed to it for more than an hour. Decibels, how we measure sound, are logarithmic, meaning that 95dB sounds twice as loud as 85dB.
This din is the norm, rather than the exception, in New York City. Noise levels in New York restaurants are regularly measured at 90 decibels and sometimes higher. Some professional eaters not-so-jokingly claim hearing loss as an occupational hazard, others include noise as a category in their restaurant reviews. There is even an app, called SoundPrint, on which you can choose a restaurant based on sound levels.
At least you can choose whether or not to go to a restaurant. Workspaces, schools, streets, and other places of public accommodation are more difficult. In 2007, after three decades, New York City finally overhauled its noise ordinance code to set specific levels on “unreasonable noise,” and prohibit certain noises. These included setting limits on everything from barking dogs (5 minutes at night and 10 minutes during the day) and making construction contractors develop noise mitigation plans, including outfitting equipment like jackhammers and other impact devices with noise-reducing mufflers, or having portable street barriers, and limiting the hours when construction is able to happen.
But for businesses such as restaurants and clubs, the noise code still only regulates noise emissions – the output, or source of noise – rather than how much noise a given person is experiencing in the establishment. A restaurant’s noise can’t exceed 42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences and 7 decibels over the ambient sound level on the street outside the establishment at night, according to the code, but there are no regulations preventing levels of noise inside that we know can make us sick and hard of hearing. Meanwhile, there are more complaints to the city’s 311 hotline about noise than any other issue.
Too much loud noise isn’t just a disturbance that you have to put up with living in the city; it is a growing public health concern with harmful outcomes for residents that the local government should step up and combat. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a growing body of work on the health impacts of noise pollution, extended exposure to noise levels as low as 65 decibels can increase the risk of hypertension, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, strokes, dementia and depression. Other health effects, according to guidelines published by the W.H.O.’s European regional office last year include tinnitus, sleep disturbance, ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes and cognitive impairment in children.
The national media has caught on: In the last two years, The New Yorker ran a piece titled, “Is Noise Pollution the Next Big Public-Health Crisis?” The Atlantic’s ran one headlined “City Noise Might Be Making You Sick” and the Washington Post described noise as “the new secondhand smoke.”
It is, and the city that led on banning smoking in bars should start regulating it as such.
Nine out of ten adults in New York City are regularly exposed to noise levels higher than the 70 decibels that the EPA considers to be harmful, at schools, the gym and during their commutes. Rick Neitzel, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan whose research contributed to that statistic, called that number “horrifying.” He told me that his research “suggests that the vast majority of people are exposed to a level [of noise] that causes hearing loss. But what we don’t know is how many of those folks are going on to have a heart attack, mental health issues, depression.”
I recently installed an app to my phone, NIOSH, to measure how much sound I am being exposed to. Walking down Broadway in downtown Manhattan, the noise hovers around 85 decibels until a honking car shoots the needle to 95 and I pass a construction site with a jackhammer going at 120. For reference, listening to sounds above 115dB for more than 2 minutes is enough to cause permanent damage.
The technology is there to regulate indoor spaces. It is the political will that is lagging. The federal government, which defunded the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) in 1981, won’t likely be stepping up anytime soon, which means cities will have to take the lead. Bars, restaurants and stores often have made interior design decisions removing tablecloths in favor of exposed-wood tables, and having smaller rooms with brittle floors that amplify noise as they steadily crank up their music. The city should set noise regulations for allowable maximum volume indoors, or at least require that establishments set out warning signs that their noise levels may cause permanent hearing loss and have earplugs available, as suggested by the Hearing Health Foundation’s sample indoor noise ordinance. And they need to enforce those rules. According to an NBC 4 New York report, noisy bars and restaurants avoid fines more than 99 percent of the time. If the NYPD increased the frequency of its checking and fining violators, businesses could be induced to tone it down.
Construction noise and traffic – which can regularly exceed 100 decibels in New York – might be harder to regulate. But it’s not impossible. Actually enforcing noise complaints and fines for honking, which is illegal except in moments of imminent danger, would be a start. According to a 2017 report from the state comptroller, three-quarters of 311 construction-noise complaints between 2014 to 2016 involved construction work being done with an after-hours permit. More stringently enforcing limits on construction hours, as a current proposal by City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera suggests, would be a first step. Construction may be a $61 billion industry and after-hour permits may bring in millions to the city, but it’s at the cost of residents’ health.
Some places do take noise seriously. The European Union has perhaps the most stringent noise guidelines, such as setting annual average night exposure to traffic noise to no more than 45dBin order to “protect human health.” According to these guidelines, regular exposure to steady, continuous night time traffic noise over 53dB can cause adverse health effects – a level that my apartment next to a trucking route barely dips below.
Health is not the only reason to regulate noise pollution: is is also an accessibility issue for the elderly, the hard of hearing and those sensitive to noise, including many people with autism spectrum disorders. And like with other forms of pollution, pregnant women, fetuses, newborns, infants and children are most susceptible. A New York City study looking at the effects of noise greater than 65dB on schoolchildren found that exposure to excess noise impaired reading skills and speech perception. That study is especially frightening given that a recent survey of schools in Manhattan found noise peaks in schools between 85 dB and 109 dB.
Noise is also an environmental justice issue. Trucking routes, highways, and airports have been at the center of urban environmental justice concerns because they are often concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color and they cause air pollution. But look at a map of noise pollution in the New York City, and the same places that are the center of concerns over air quality like East Harlem, Mott Haven in the Bronx and eastern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville also have some of the highest level of noise pollution.
New York, which has struggled with noise for the last century, is probably one of the loudest cities. But no one actually knows, because noise pollution isn’t as well-documented as other environmental hazards. “If you compare noise to other types of pollution, like water or air, both of those things are routinely measured and results are made public,” says Neitzel. “Noise is not, so it remains an unknown and unrecognized problem.”
Research is underway to understand the scope of the problem. In 2016, New York University started a five-year study funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor noise in New York City, which is expected to wrap up the first phase in 2021. The project is supported by city health and environmental agencies, but how the data will translate into specific policies, if at all, remains unclear.
What should happen is that the data is used to develop a much more ambitious program to regulate noise in public areas, and politicians should begin taking noise pollution seriously as the environmental health hazard that it is.