Many mistake noise for an everyday annoyance. Yet for several decades now, scientific research has clearly established a link between excessive noise and various public health harms, including preventable hearing loss, heart disease, stroke, and hypertension. As the title of a recent New York Times summary of the dangers of noise pollution puts it, “Noise Could Take Years Off Your Life.” Of even greater concern, research is starting to reveal the extent to which low-wealth communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate share of harmful noise pollution.
Lawmakers long ago recognized the harms posed by excess noise. As it did with the Clean Air Act for air pollution and the Toxic Substances Control Act for toxic chemicals, Congress enacted a statute — the Noise Control Act (NCA) of 1972 — to empower the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit harmful noise emissions. But though the law remains on the books, the agency has not enforced it since the Reagan administration stripped the relevant EPA office of its funding in the early 1980s.
This report calls for reviving the EPA’s noise control mandate by using existing EPA funding or appropriating new monies. And while the NCA primarily aims to reduce noise emissions, it simultaneously offers the potential to secure strategic ancillary benefits — particularly on the climate and worker safety fronts.
After providing background on the health harms of noise pollution and the NCA’s history, the report outlines the statute’s core authorities. The report concludes by proposing a policy agenda for a reinvigorated EPA noise program:
- Regulatory agenda. In certain situations, the NCA empowers the EPA to prohibit the sale of new commercial products that do not meet best-in-class noise reduction technology. Priority actions might include setting new or strengthened noise emissions standards for the following sources of noise, which would likely also yield impressive carbon emissions reductions given advances in electrification technologies:
- Portable air compressors
- Gas-powered lawn equipment
- Diesel-powered buses
- Diesel-powered trucks, including garbage trucks and snow plows
- Crypto mining
- Labeling and low-emissions product development. The EPA should work to revive its labeling and low-emissions certification programs. As it reinstates these programs, officials should take advantage of the opportunity to consider important reforms, such as adopting a more intuitive suite of sound measurement tools in place of decibels.
- Research agenda and technical assistance. As it develops and coordinates research on the impacts of excessive noise and solutions to address them, the EPA should ensure that this knowledge is distributed equitably and is informed by meaningful public engagement, especially from members of structurally marginalized and other noise-impacted communities. It should also leverage its expertise to support efforts by local and state governments to address excessive noise emissions.