What if we told you that every day, tens of millions of Americans are exposed to something that contributes to neurological disease, depression, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke? What if we also told you that in causing these health harms, it was disproportionately affecting low-wealth communities and communities of color?
You’d probably respond by saying that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should be protecting the public against it. After all, Congress has tasked these and other agencies with addressing exactly these kinds of threats for nearly a century now.
What is this dangerous “something”? It’s excessive noise. And, as it happens, more than 50 years ago, Congress recognized the seriousness of the harms that excessive noise causes and, as a result, passed a law directing the EPA to take aggressive action against it.
Few people today know about the Noise Control Act (NCA) of 1972. But during the 1970s — when the notion that industry should not be able to profit at the expense of the public interest was more widely accepted — the EPA made a lot progress implementing that law, clamping down on noise from such sources as portable air compressors, garbage trucks, and interstate railroads, while establishing labeling requirements for other noisy products and helping local communities develop their own noise control policies.
That progress came to a screeching halt in the 1980s, with the arrival of President Ronald Reagan and his administration’s commitment to shrinking government and rolling back regulatory safeguards, which effectively gave corporate polluters carte blanche do what they please with minimal consequences. The NCA remains on the books today — Reagan and his conservative allies weren’t able to repeal the law — but it has lain dormant for over four decades, after Reagan’s budget office zeroed out funding for the office responsible for implementing the NCA.
In a report released today, we, along with co-author Sasha Kliger, call on policymakers to bring this law back to life. Specifically, the report calls on lawmakers to restore funding to the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), the bureau within the EPA charged with implementing the NCA. This should be a much easier lift than passing new legislation, and indeed there is recent precedent for restoring funding to moribund agencies. It’s also possible that EPA could get a head start by redirecting existing resources toward NCA implementation.
The report also lays out a detailed agenda for the president to quickly begin fulfilling the NCA’s statutory goals consistent with present day challenges and priorities. This comprehensive agenda covers everything from regulatory priorities and actions on labeling and low-noise product development to research needs and technical assistance strategies.
It is long past time that we revive this important law. While the scientific evidence regarding the public health harms of excessive noise was strong in the 1970s, it has only grown in the ensuing years. Importantly, we now have evidence demonstrating that these harms are disproportionately borne by structurally marginalized members of our society, including low-wealth communities and communities of color. In short, noise is a crucial environmental justice issue.
We also know that excessive noise harms the economy. By increasing fatigue (from sleep disruption) and impacting concentration, noise pollution can contribute to productivity losses and learning impairment. Research shows that these effects are particularly acute for children, affecting their ability to learn in school. (Just as importantly, these effects can be reversed by implementing the very measures ONAC could establish and enforce).
But there’s also an important bonus to robust implementation of the NCA, which would not have been apparent to its original drafters: It would reinforce our current efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Internal combustion engines don’t just generate carbon pollution; they’re noisy, too. And the electric alternatives are a lot quieter. Importantly, noise control standards would also address product categories that the EPA’s climate-focused regulations might not otherwise reach, such as gas-powered lawn equipment.
You can learn about the history of ONAC, the details of the NCA, and what effective implementation of the law could do for us today in our report. Give it a look.