Living in a noisy neighborhood is more than just annoying. It can be deadly.
So says a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.
Most people have lost sleep at some point because of noise from passing cars, construction projects or airplanes flying overhead. But the new report says steady exposure to "noise pollution" can also lead to higher blood pressure and in turn, fatal heart attacks, killing thousands of people every year.
The researchers, led by WHO scientist Rokho Kim at the international health group's office in Bonn, Germany, compiled data from several epidemiological studies that have come out over the past five to 10 years. Combined, the studies show noise is to blame for 1.8 percent of heart attacks across Western Europe.
In places with denser populations and more background noise, the risk could be greater; about 2.9 percent of heart attacks in Germany could be attributed to noise, the new report says. Of the country's 133,115 heart attack cases in 1999, noise caused an estimated 3,860 of them, killing 2,232 people.
"We hope that this new evidence will prompt governments and local authorities to introduce noise control policies at the national and local levels, thus protecting the health of Europeans from this growing hazard," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO's director for Europe.
The findings could eventually make ripples in the United States, where about 1.5 million heart attacks occur each year. Because of little-known laws that were put in place during the 1970s heyday of environmental legislation, U.S. EPA already has the authority -- if not the funding or the political will -- to go after noise pollution.
EPA will review the findings, an agency spokeswoman said yesterday. Action on that front is unlikely in the current political environment, but experts said the new findings from Europe confirm what many scientists have long suspected: Noise can be harmful, and not just to people's ears.
At a conference in 1969, former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart called for swift federal action, pointing to emerging research on the link between noise and a bevy of health problems, including high blood pressure, headaches and heart disease.
"Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience," Stewart once said. "Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere."
A year after Stewart's warning, Congress first ordered EPA to go after noise pollution under provisions in the Clean Air Act. The agency got more assignments from the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978.
One of the agency's first steps was undertaking a survey of noise across the United States. The level of background noise in the average city was 59 decibels, about as loud as an ordinary conversation. In the suburbs, the noise level was 49 decibels, and in rural areas, it was 43.
And today, EPA has a handful of noise rules on the books, such as a limit on noise from motorcycles. They all date back decades, though, because the White House cut funding for the program under President Reagan, and it has never been restored.
The Office of Noise Abatement and Control got the ax in the early 1980s, a time -- not too different from today -- when the economy was in the gutter and many on Capitol Hill wanted to slash away at red tape. The noise rules were slammed by critics like syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick, who called it "bureaucracy gone berserk."
"Metaphorically speaking, if you will forgive me, this is garbage," Kilpatrick wrote at the time.
Critics of federal noise rules have argued that state laws and local ordinances can handle noisy lawnmowers, air conditioners and highway traffic on their own. If the noise becomes a nuisance, the police can start writing tickets, they say.
But in the past few years in Europe, new empirical studies have led health experts to pay a new level of attention to noise pollution. The European Union already has a directive ordering local governments to reduce noise, and last year, a panel of environmental officials from six European countries ranked traffic noise as the continent's second-most pressing threat to public health, after air pollution.
Noise follows a different pattern from other kinds of environmental risks, said Mathias Basner, who studies sleep at the University of Pennsylvania and contributed to the new WHO report.
"If you look just at the health effects of cardiovascular disease, the increase in risk of getting a heart attack, or a stroke, or high blood pressure -- it's kind of low," Basner said. "But on the other hand, there are so many people exposed to noise that this combination makes it a real public health problem."
It used to be that America was moving more aggressively than Europe to limit noise, but except for regulations in the workplace, the issue has been dormant in the United States for the past three decades, said Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University who has written a history of federal noise pollution rules.
Though there have been hints for a long time that noise can cause health problems, it has mainly been described as an aesthetic issue, or at worst, a problem of a few hours of lost sleep, said Shapiro, a member of the Center for Progressive Reform who has often called for stronger federal regulations.
If newer research shows that noise is harmful enough to kill, "that puts it in a whole different light," he said.
Rules in United States
Without an office that is dedicated to noise issues, EPA has assigned its tasks to the Office of Air and Radiation, where officials spend most of their time crafting new air pollution standards.
People still contact EPA about noise, but most responsibilities have been handed to state and local officials, the agency spokeswoman said. The program has no dedicated funding, but when needs arise, EPA allocates money from its general budget, she said.
That is not to say that the program is entirely dead. In the summer of 2009, EPA proposed an update to the standards that are used to rate the effectiveness of earplugs and other devices that people use to protect their ears at firing ranges, construction sites and concerts.
The current standard, which was set in 1979, does not allow a good comparison between older devices and newer noise-reduction technologies, EPA said. Its proposal got support from trade groups such as the International Safety Equipment Association, as well as end-users such as the Pentagon, which described the update to the testing rules as "long overdue."
Those standards would complement the rules set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which allows employees to be exposed to noise levels as high as 90 decibels for as long as eight hours. If a workplace is noisier than that, or if workers have longer shifts, the company needs a training plan and equipment to protect employees' ears.
The current rules are flexible, and "you achieve compliance with the resources you have available," said Kevin Cannon, director of safety and health services at the Associated General Contractors of America.
But last year, OSHA proposed updating the rules to require more controls on noisy equipment. The agency withdrew its proposal before the comment period ended, after some business groups and lawmakers such as House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) complained.
That was an "encouraging signal that the agency is slowing down on excessive government regulations that hinder job creation," said Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, in a statement at the time.
EPA could expect a similar backlash if it tried to flex its muscles on noise, but some people would like to see the agency expand its reach. In theory, the agency could decide on a safe level of noise exposure for the public or impose rules on individual sources of noise, such as highways that cut through neighborhoods.
Les Blomberg, director of an advocacy group called the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, said EPA should create a program that does for noise what the Energy Star program does for electricity use. If people knew how noisy a lawnmower, leafblower or vacuum cleaner is, they could comparison-shop to find the quietest models, he said.
"People honestly feel that noise is the cost of living in the modern world," Blomberg said. "That's the way it works right now, but we have the technology to quiet all these things down. I don't think people have made that distinction yet -- that they can have the benefits of a modern society without the noise."
Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University, said it usually makes the most sense for noise pollution to be tackled at the state and local levels. That is because sounds do not usually travel far enough to be a regional or national concern, and areas have different preferences when it comes to noise.
But he said federal standards could be helpful if some states try to set stricter rules -- for instance, by putting a limit on the amount of noise that can come from a truck as it barrels down the highway. In the past, businesses have called for a national standard to avoid a patchwork of state rules, as when California started setting stricter air pollution rules for cars than the rest of the country.
California, which has often been the first to adopt new regulations, recently passed a noise law for motorcycles. It will allow people to be ticketed by police if their motorcycles do not have labels saying that the noise from the roaring engine will stay below 80 decibels, as a decades-old EPA rule requires.
The law was passed over opposition from the American Motorcyclist Association, which says it could force motorcycle owners to spend more money if they need to replace their mufflers. As a gag, the group named former Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) its "Motorcyclist of the Year" for signing the bill last year.
Because he rides motorcycles himself, Schwarzenegger should know that the state's law won't be a good solution for noise problems, said Pete TerHorst, a spokesman for the motorcycle group. The group, which has taken a formal position against needlessly noisy motorcycles, says that biker education programs and industrywide noise standards are better ways to keep the volume down.
Motorcyclists are now worried that other states will pass something similar to the California law, TerHorst said.
"Unfortunately, that's a fix that we don't see as practical," he said. "And the momentum that something like that can create is a big concern to us."
But even without the health effects, policymakers could find it worthwhile to regulate noise more strictly, Stavins said. He himself gets a great deal of "disutility" when a loud motorcycle drives down the street.
The new report by WHO compares annoyance and lost sleep to heart attacks using a statistic called "disability-adjusted life-years." In Western Europe, heart disease causes 61,000 years to be lost, but the harmful effects of lost sleep clocked in at 903,000 years, while the lost well-being from annoying noise totaled 587,000 years.
"Whether you call it health damage or you call it an annoyance, annoyance can be pretty serious," Stavins said. "The question is, what is people's willingness to pay to avoid it? That can be quite significant."
Click here to read the report.