Are Quieter Communities Possible?

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By David DeGagne

Noise has often been defined as any sound which is disturbing, harmful or unwanted. It stands to reason therefore that the sounds of greatest concern are those which threaten or affect the health or well-being of individuals.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The WHO believes environmental noise can have serious effects on people and their health, interfering with daily activities at school, work and home. If we accept the WHOs definition of health, then noise can potentially be considered a health hazard.

Given the rate of development worldwide, we can reasonably expect that more people will be impacted by the effects of noise. This in turn can cause increased conflicts between industrial developers and the expectations of community dwellers for a quieter environment. Although these expectations can be different for urban populations compared to rural, everyone has some expectation of a reasonably quiet community. The next obvious question is, What defines a quiet community? From one Internet source, word “quiet” is “freedom from disturbance, noise or alarm.” To better understand the challenges in making or maintaining quiet communities, we need to examine the most significant noise sources and their impacts or effects, the current status of noise regulations, and what can be done to mitigate environmental noise.

Environmental Noise Sources and Their Impacts

Environmental noise is unwanted sound that travels over distance from a source(s) to a receiver location. The main sources of environment noise can be grouped into four categories:

  1. Transportation noise from vehicles, railways and aircrafts
  2. Industrial noise from stationary sites such as manufacturing and processing facilities, construction sites and ancillary work related activities
  3. Domestic noise within a neighbourhood coming from pets, parties and loud music, to appliances, lawn mowers, air conditioning units and the like
  4. Recreational noise from snowmobiles, motorcycles, parks, campgrounds and public sports facilities.

The impacts of noise can be numerous and varied. Major health-related effects associated with environmental noise are termed, extra auditory effects, and typically manifest as a physiological reaction, such as annoyance, stress, sleep interruption and speech interference. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), noise is one of the most important sources of environmental nuisance and a hazard to human health and welfare that is increasing in time and space. The United Nations System-Wide Earthwatch considers noise an increasingly omnipresent, yet underestimated, form of pollution.

Compared to other environmental problems, noise pollution continues to grow and is associated with an increasing number of complaints from those affected. The WHO indicates that the growth in urban environmental noise pollution is unsustainable globally because it has direct and cumulative health effects. It can also affect future generations by degrading residential, social and learning environments.

The European Commission has found that much of the European population consider environmental noise – typically caused by traffic, industry and recreational activities – as one of the main local environmental problems and the source of an increasing number of complaints from the public. Even though measures to address environmental noise have been in existence for more than 35 years, it has had a lower priority than other environmental problems. It is estimated that 20 percent of the European Union’s population (about 80 million people) suffer from noise levels that scientists and health experts consider to be unacceptable, causing increased incidences of annoyance, sleep disturbance and other adverse health effects.

In the Unites States, health specialists quoted in the book, Noise Pollution, A Modern Plague state, “Communities are continuing to experience the manmade plague of environmental noise from which there is virtually no escape, no matter where we are – in our homes and yards, on our streets, in our cars, at the theaters, restaurants, parks, arenas, and in other public places. Despite some attempts to regulate it, noise pollution has become an unfortunate fact of life worldwide in a way that is analogous to second-hand smoke. Second-hand noise is an unwanted airborne pollutant produced by others; it is imposed on use without our consent, often against our wills, and at times, places, and volume over which we have no control…. Noise pollution continues to grow in scope, variety, and magnitude; it is only the extent of the growth that remains unknown.”

Throughout the U.S. environmental noise is considered to degrade the quality of life for millions of people. A 2000 United States Census found that 30% of Americans complained of noise, and that 11% found it to be bothersome. Among those who complained, 40% believed noise was bothersome enough to make them want to change their place of residence.

On the other side of the world in Australia, the 1997 State of the Environment Report has included noise as an emerging issue since 1987. The report recognized that limited information was available regarding the overall impact of industrial noise on surrounding communities however community awareness of environmental noise is increasing and there is a higher expectation to reduce noise levels.

What we’re seeing globally is that environmental noise has a lower priority than other environmental problems in the developed world despite the fact that the public considers noise as one of the main causes of a declining quality of life.

Status of Environmental Noise Regulations and Future Direction for Mitigation

Industry specific Regulators like the Alberta Energy Regulator and Alberta Utilities Commission in Canada, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Municipalities such as Dallas Texas, Lycoming County Pennsylvania and other States, have enacted environmental noise regulations that have been developed locally based in part on stakeholder input or on advice from acoustical academics and consultants. While these may work regionally, it has resulted in a wide variance of requirements for industries like Petroleum with no general consistency in methodology or approaches to enforcement. This can make it very confusing for companies to follow when they are planning new facilities.

On a more broad scale, groups like the WHO and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which can provide more overarching guidelines, have also been ineffective for a variety of reasons. If environmental noise levels continue to rise, the public will eventually demand action to deal with the impact on quality of life.

To address this growing issue, governments need to address the following as part of an effective environmental noise management strategy:

  • Monitor human exposure to noise to understand contributing factors
  • Develop health based noise emission guidelines that consider:
    • Specific environments such as schools, playgrounds, homes, hospitals, etc.
    • Environments impacted by multiple noise sources Sensitive time periods such as evenings, nights and holidays
    • Groups at high risk, such as children and the hearing impaired
  • Establish noise consequence when planning transport systems and land use
  • Assess effectiveness of noise policies in reducing adverse health effects and exposure, and in improving supportive “soundscapes”
  • Adopt precautionary actions for a sustainable development of the acoustic environments.

Similarly, industrial operators need to develop Corporate Environmental Noise Management Plans that recognize the potential impacts of their operational noise on nearby communities, and work with them to minimize noise levels by meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements and community expectations.

Noise Solutions Inc. recognizes the challenges faced by governments and industry to meet regulatory and community expectations and has developed state of the art noise control equipment that effectively meets desired targets.

Noise Solutions has also developed the Qzone Compliant® Program, which is recognized as an effective mechanism by many key Regulators in the United States and Canada, for determining if a facility is in regulatory compliance. If the facility is not, the Qzone Compliant Program will outline a course of action to meet targets and will institute a risk-based review schedule to ensure long term compliance.

Using noise control technology and tools like those developed by Noise Solutions can help to achieve quieter communities and ensure an acceptable quality of life for those living near industrial developments.

For more information on how to make our communities quieter or to learn more about Noise Solutions Inc. products and services, like the Qzone Compliant Program, please contact 1-800-NO NOISE or visit the Noise Solutions website at www.noisesolutions.com.

About the author

Vice President of Corporate Development for Noise Solutions, David DeGagne has been involved with the environmental noise industry since 1974. Since then, he’s worked with various government, university, First Nations and industries throughout North America and Europe.

David began his career with the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) and later as Executive Director for the Centre for Risk Management; a Calgary based environmental consulting company. Throughout, his focus has primarily been in the areas of stakeholder consultation, public safety, environmental protection, acoustical engineering and risk management, and he has published over three dozen technical papers.

Sharing his time between Alberta and California, DeGagne holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Sciences and a Diploma in Hydrocarbon Engineering Technology from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Article References:

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report) Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage © Commonwealth of Australia 2001, ISBN 0 643 06747 7

The Health Effects Of Environmental Noise – Other Than Hearing Loss, May 2004, Australian

Department of Health and Ageing

Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague, Lisa Goines, RN, Louis Hagler, MD, Southern Medical Journal, 2007; 100 (3):287-294, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Reducing the Impact of Environmental Noise on Quality of Life Requires an Effective National Noise Policy, Andrew S. Harris, Greg G Fleming, William W. Langd, Paul D. Schomer & Eric W. Wood

Report On The Second Meeting On Night Noise Guidelines, Geneva, Switzerland, 6-7 December 2004”, European Centre for Environment and Health, World Health Organization 2005

A Quieter Alberta, What Will it Take?Anita Lewis, David DeGagne, & Don Burke, 2011 Banff Spring Noise Conference

OECD Recommendation of the Council on Noise Abatement Policies C(78)73/Final 3 July 1978, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

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