Revitalizing EPA Office of Noise Abatement and Control could address major racial and socioeconomic health disparities and climate change
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A quieter world would be a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable one. That’s the bottom line of a new report on the hazards of noise pollution from the Center for Progressive Reform and Governing for Impact. Long-term exposure to excessive noise poses grave risks to health that disproportionately impact already overburdened communities, and major sources — gas-powered lawn equipment, trucks, and even crypto-mining — are often big polluters, too.
“More than the nuisance of a neighbor’s stereo system, chronic exposure to industrial noise is linked to serious health problems, including disabilities, stroke, high blood pressure, and premature death,” says James Goodwin, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform and a co-author of the report. “We have laws on the books to address other causes of these negative impacts, such as air pollution, so why shouldn’t excessive noise receive the same treatment?”
In the report, Safe and Sound: How the Environmental Protection Agency Can Protect Us from Dangerous Noise, Goodwin and co-authors Will Dobbs-Allsopp and Sasha Kliger of Governing for Impact call for the revival of a now-dormant branch of the U.S. EPA, the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), to address the harms posed by excess noise. While ONAC fell victim to the Reagan administration’s extreme deregulatory agenda, the EPA’s mandate to limit noise emissions was never repealed.
“What may surprise people is that the Noise Control Act is still on the books,” says Dobbs-Allsopp, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Governing for Impact. “With existing EPA funding, or by appropriating new monies, we could see constructive enforcement of the law and improvements in everyone’s quality of life. There’s no need to wait for Congress to act — because it already has.”
A renewed ONAC would also reinforce current efforts to address climate change, as decarbonization and electrification generally result in quieter vehicles and equipment, and the office would have authority to help bring down noise levels of gas-powered lawn tools and buses.
The authors place special emphasis on the implications of these findings for racial and economic justice. Neighborhoods with more low-wealth and/or Black or Hispanic residents, and schools with more students living below the poverty line, are exposed to significantly higher levels of noise.
“Like every environmental injustice, this one hits low-wealth communities and communities of color particularly hard, compounding other burdens and harms,” Dobbs-Allsopp said. “That said, everyone has something to gain by reducing noise pollution, so everyone should have a stake in working to curb or eliminate it.”
Beyond a regulatory agenda that would prohibit the sale of products that do not meet noise standards, the report also recommends:
- Better labeling and product development
- Technical assistance for local governments looking to tackle excess noise on their own
- Public engagement with structurally marginalized communities
“Finally enforcing the Noise Control Act would not only address the serious and direct health effects of dangerous noise levels, it would also lead to a host of benefits for the climate,” Goodwin said. “It could be one of the best climate and environmental justice enforcement tools we have, and all this time, it’s been hiding in plain sight.”
The report is available at https://progressivereform.org/publications/safe-and-sound/.
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Governing for Impact (GFI) is a regulatory policy organization dedicated to ensuring the federal government functions for working Americans, not corporate lobbyists. For additional information about GFI, please visit https://governingforimpact.org/.