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EPA Not Eager to Resume Stewardship of the Noise Control Act:  What are the Implications of Its Return as a Regulatory Body?

— April 9, 2024

On top of development and enforcement of standards, public health and well-being are protected and  environmental challenges are addressed.

Quiet Communities Inc, a public health advocacy group based in Massachusetts sued the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last June 7, 2023. The lawsuit compels the agency to resume its duties and protect the public from harmful noise pollution under the Noise Control and Quiet Communities Act. However, it looks like the EPA does not want to take back its core functions which were quashed in the early 1980s by Congress. Since then, noise control and regulation were devolved to state and local programs. But, the lawsuit against the EPA aims to revive a regulatory function of the agency that was abandoned 40 years ago.

Noise Pollution – An Environmental and Health Concern

According to the Environmental Health Sciences Center, noise pollution is the second most important environmental cause of health issues after air pollution. It affects around 10 million people in the US who have permanent hearing loss or noise-related trauma.  Prolonged or continued exposure to high levels of noise can result to other health problems as well such as cardiovascular disorders, sleep disturbances, and stress. Consequently, health issues due to noise pollution can affect the well-being and quality of life of individuals. In addition, excessive noise can disrupt natural habitats and wildlife behavior.

Another significant effect of high noise levels is interference with people’s enjoyment of daily and recreational activities. For example, outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, camping, birdwatching, and nature photography can diminish the tranquility and appeal of these environments. Noise pollution also affects work environments making it difficult to concentrate, communicate, and complete tasks. Furthermore, excessive noise can also increase stress levels and accident rates due to missing vital auditory cues and warnings. Hence, building a conducive work environment is vital for productivity and health reasons. Soundproofing materials, retrofitted equipment for noise reduction or upgrading noisy devices with quieter models, and designating quiet zones are some ways to reduce sound disturbances in the office.

History of the Noise Control Act

The Noise Control Act created a national policy to help regulate sources of major noise. Federal agencies were also required to report their noise levels. For reference, any noise greater than 80 decibels is considered disproportionate and a potential health hazard. These sounds include those emanating from vehicles, appliances, machineries, and so on. In effect, the national policy aims to promote an environment free from noise that can endanger the health and welfare of the population. The Act also resulted in the establishment of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) which was the overall coordinator of all federal noise control activities nearly five decades ago or in the 70s. ONAC was also responsible for noise pollution research as well as noise emission standards development.

On the other hand, the Quiet Communities Act of 1978 was enacted to extend the provisions of the Noise Control Act. In 1982, ONAC was shut down as part of President Reagan’s deficit reduction plan. EPA phased out and noise control and regulation were the primary responsibilities of state and local governments. However, the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978 were never repealed by Congress and thus, remain in effect today even though they are not funded. The Quiet Communities Act of 2021, 2022, and 2023 would compel the EPA to revive the ONAC and develop local noise control programs, research and education. Currently, the status of the 2023 bill is marked as introduced. It was referred to the Subcommittee of Environment, Manufacturing, and Critical Materials last year.

Implications of the ONAC Revival

Indeed, whether the EPA is compelled to start again implementing the Noise Control Act through its own or because of a court order, there are significant implications for a wide range of industries and product manufacturers. For one, the revival of the ONAC is a renewed federal commitment to address noise pollution as a public health and environmental issue strengthening the oversight, coordination, and support at all levels (national, state, and local) for noise control endeavors. Specific industries such as those making personal listening devices and equipment, toys, outdoor power machines for land management and construction, and conventional transportation technologies will be subject to regulatory requirements including vetting, recordkeeping, and reporting processes.

Outdoor construction worker; image courtesy of skeeze via Pixabay,

Valuable research and technical research will also be available to support government agencies, businesses, communities, and individuals to address noise pollution concerns. These initiatives could cover research on the impact of noise pollution as well as development of effective noise control technologies and strategies. Moreover, ONAC will be instrumental in developing and updating noise emission standards for various sources such as transportation, manufacturing, industry, and construction. Public education and outreach efforts can also enhance awareness of noise pollution issues, promote sound mitigation measures, and encourage communities and individuals to reduce noise impacts in their respective environments.

In summary, even though the EPA is fighting the resumption of its role in noise control, bringing back ONAC has the potential to improve sound control efforts, promote research and innovation, and enhance coordination and collaboration. On top of development and enforcement of standards, public health and well-being are protected and  environmental challenges are addressed.

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