National Academies Press: OpenBook

Technology for a Quieter America (2010)

Chapter: 10 Public Information on Noise Control

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Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

Public Information on Noise Control

If enough people actively work to quiet a source of noise—either acting as individuals or as organized groups complaining to the noise producer—the noise will be quieted.

—Bugliarello et al., 1976

The Impact of Noise Pollution

There is no doubt that the public can be an effective force in promoting a quieter America. In the late 1950s, people noticed the difference between the noise generated by jet and propeller-driven airplanes, even though a standard sound-level meter indicated that the A-frequency weighted noise levels were the same for both. The public outcry forced authorities in New York to pressure both airplane manufacturers to reduce the noise of jet airplanes and the scientific community to find a better way of measuring human reaction to noise (Beranek, 2008).

As a result, the perceived noise level was developed, and in 1969 the Federal Aviation Administration issued regulations limiting noise emissions from airplanes. International regulations soon followed, and cooperation between manufacturers and the federal government has led to airplanes that are much quieter today than when they were first introduced.

Nevertheless, because of the enormous increase in air traffic, problems with noise around major airports continue, as does the dialogue between authorities and the public. In the area around O’Hare Airport near Chicago, for example, regular meetings are held to discuss measures to address airport noise issues (ONCC, 2009).

In the early 1970s, before noise walls became commonplace along American highways, two acoustical consultants visited Baltimore, Maryland, and recommended the construction of a noise barrier for a controversial highway construction project in anticipation of complaints from a nearby community.1 At the time the interaction between the road surface and tires, which is now known to be the major source of highway traffic noise, was not well understood. Thus, instead of considering the reduction of noise emissions at the source, noise barriers became the solution of choice for abating traffic noise.

A survey for the appliance industry in 1999 showed that 84 percent of respondents considered “ultra-quiet” operation of dishwashers a desirable feature (KBDN, 1999). Today, many quiet dishwashers are on the market, and, although there is no uniform system for labeling noise emissions from appliances in the United States, in some cases a noise emission label is placed on products.

Despite these and other examples of responses to public concerns about noise, success stories are exceptions rather than the rule, and there is plenty of room for improvement. In a line-by-line compilation by the U.S. Census Bureau (2005), 11,757,000 households in 2001 reported that street noise and/or traffic noise was “bothersome.” Of those, 4,457,000 said that noise was so bothersome they wanted to move. In another line of the report, noise was reported as a “problem” by 2,652,000 households. Other studies have shown that there is widespread dissatisfaction with noise levels and the lack of speech privacy in many offices (e.g., Center for the Built Environment, 2009; Jensen et al., 2005).

Noise from lawn care equipment is frequently the subject of citizen complaints. One approach to addressing these complaints is for citizens to pressure local authorities to enact noise control ordinances or to use another legal procedure. However, this approach immediately puts citizens groups in conflict with manufacturers or trade associations. An alternative is for the public to convince manufacturers that engineering controls for reducing noise are feasible and that there is a market for quiet outdoor equipment. In this way, public pressure could be a powerful force in driving innovation and noise reduction for consumer products.

Another source of widespread public complaints is noise from motorcycles. Although federal regulations to control noise emissions and muffler designs are in place, they are widely ignored. On September 11, 2009, the Portland (Maine) Press Herald reported that citizens had failed to persuade the city council to control motorcycle noise by


Miller, L. 2009. Acceptance speech on receiving the INCE/USA Outstanding Educator Award. Presented at INTER-NOISE 09, The 2009 International Congress on Noise Control Engineering, Ottawa, Canada, August 26.

Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

insisting on the installation of mufflers approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Would the outcome be different if citizens groups had better public information? Time will tell, because this issue is sure to come up again.


As the examples above show, there are many obstacles to achieving lower noise levels. Groups in favor of noisy devices for financial and other reasons will rise in opposition to noise reductions, and governments will listen to persuasive arguments on both sides of an issue and try to balance the needs of opposing groups. Manufacturers have shown that they will respond, sometimes slowly, once they are convinced there is a market for quieter products. At times, citizens become convinced that nothing can be done about noise, and they move on to other issues.

The study committee that prepared this report believes that a well-informed public has a better chance of success than a public that lodges complaints based only on subjective reactions to noise. To support that argument, the next sections review what has been done in the past and describe the current situation. The purpose here is not to list all of the stakeholders but to give a brief snapshot of some past and present activities and to suggest actions that could be taken in the future to improve public access to authoritative, accurate, and timely information that can support and inform a strong public presence in future efforts to reduce noise.

Past Efforts

In 1970, Theodore Berland, a well-known writer of popular science at the time, wrote The Fight for Quiet, an influential book in which he presented information on the health effects of noise, how noise is generated, and what the public can do about it. Much of the information was based on interviews with prominent scientists and engineers with expertise in noise. Berland presented data on noise levels in a wide variety of common situations. TheFight for Quiet is believed to have greatly influenced public policy, especially the passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972 and a decade of EPA involvement in noise issues. Robert Alex Baron, a former theater manager and head of New York Citizens for a Quieter City, wrote The Tyranny of Noise in 1970, a book intended to inform the public about noise issues, including many issues that had been raised by Berland.

Another influential book, The Impact of Noise Pollution, by George Bugliarello et al. (1976), focused on technical issues but included a discussion of the dissemination of information on noise through public service announcements by the Ad Council, an organization that produces highly effective public service announcements on a wide range of subjects ( At that time, however, the EPA program had taken center stage regarding noise issues, and the idea of a campaign by the Ad Council was never pursued. With the authority given to EPA by Congress under the Noise Control Act of 1972 and later the Quiet Communities Act of 1978, EPA had an active public information program. One element of the program was called ECHO (Each Community Helps Others), which gave communities with limited resources an opportunity to share ideas on what works and what does not with respect to noise. As detailed below, EPA still has that authority, although its program was curtailed by Congress in 1981.

Later, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association convened a group of experts to study noise issues and publish the results. The report, Combating Noise in the’ 90s, was published by the association (ASHA, 1991). Working Group VII of the team that produced the report was charged with developing a strategy for educating the public and disseminating information. Target groups included preschool children, school-age children and youth, college and professional students, adult citizens and consumers, practitioners in influential professions, and specific groups at risk—in short, most of the population. Key messages would address quality-of-life issues, health effects, noise hazards to hearing, and the prevention of noise-induced hearing loss. Unfortunately, none of these outreach or educational programs was pursued, perhaps because there was little follow-up in making the recommendations known to the public or because no organization stepped in to lead efforts to implement the recommendations.

A report with a similar title, Fighting Noise in the 1990s, was produced in Europe by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1991). In this report the authors observed that “the experience of several countries (Australia, Japan, The Netherlands, and Switzerland) suggests that it is better to organize ongoing campaigns of limited scope, giving regular backing to advances in noise abatement (e.g., the introduction of new regulations or a new policy), rather than major, short-lived national campaigns unrelated to progress achieved and with no lasting effect.”

Current Efforts

Although EPA currently has broad authority from Congress to develop and disseminate information on noise to the public, the agency’s current program might be described as “extremely modest.” However, a few others have taken up the task. Some examples are given below.

A children’s book, Listen to the Raindrops, is being distributed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to children in the public schools; the book is accompanied by a teacher’s guide to noise pollution (Bronzaft, 2008). The Acoustical Society of America has a publicly available guide on the acoustics of classrooms and has developed an American National Standard on Classroom Acoustics (ASA, 2009). The “Dangerous Decibels” campaign ( is a collaborative effort by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and

Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

the Oregon Hearing Research Center to educate children about the dangers of hazardous noise and ultimately to reduce the prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss. The Noise Pollution Clearing House ( maintains a repository of reports on noise and provides online information about noise activities in several states; it also maintains a short list of citizens groups concerned with noise ( In addition, many other organizations publish online information on noise, including some government agencies, such as EPA, the several modal agencies of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many professional organizations maintain websites (e.g., Institute of Noise Control Engineering, Acoustical Society of America), and many general information sites are available, such as Noise Free America, Citizens Against Noise of Hawaii, and the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition.

The Center for Hearing and Communication ( sponsors International Noise Awareness Day to educate the public on the dangers of excessive noise. Several resources are available for download, such as a Noise Center, which contains useful facts on noise.

Recent efforts have been made in the technical community to determine how its public information outreach can be improved. The situation in the United States was discussed in a workshop held in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2008 to investigate messages that should be communicated, the role of engineering societies, and current EPA activities (Bronzaft, 2008). A 2007 workshop in Istanbul (Moss, 2008) covered European campaigns (some of them successful) to raise public awareness. That workshop included anecdotal information about attempts by citizens to convince authorities that noise should be reduced.

Noise Action Week ( is an annual initiative coordinated by Environmental Protection UK to raise awareness of problems caused by neighborhood noise and the solutions available to address them. This initiative provides an opportunity for local authorities, housing providers, mediation services, and all those involved in neighborhood noise management to publicize information about services available and promote practical solutions.

Online Information

The large number of references in this report to online sources attests to the importance of the Internet as a source of information on noise. Most government agencies that have missions connected to noise have websites on which they regularly post noise-related information, as do professional societies, trade associations, and citizens groups. An Internet search for “noise” using a major search engine returned about 117 million results. A search for “noise pollution” returned about 325,000 results, and “noise abatement” returned 81,000. The term “noise control engineering” returned many fewer results, about 12,300. Thus, an enormous amount of information on noise is available on the Internet. The problem for the public is how to judge the relevance and reliability of this information.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, a professor and dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development from 1941 to 1945, published “As We May Think,” an essay in Atlantic Monthly, in which he expressed concern about how engineers and scientists would find their way through the mass of technical information generated during World War II (Bush, 1945). The exponential increase in the amount of information available today has complicated this problem by orders of magnitude, but Bush’s concept of “trails” can still be helpful. He conceived of a machine, which he called the “memex,” which modern readers will recognize as a desktop computer and monitor with extensive local storage and a high-speed connection to the Internet. A knowledgeable user, Bush speculated, would be able to sort through masses of information and create a “trail” that could be turned over to others with an interest in the subject.

In today’s terms, a “trail” would be a carefully annotated description of a subject together with hyperlinks to information resources. Even though “trails” through the mass of information on noise control do not exist, a group of persons with knowledge of the subject and a bias toward providing accurate, relevant information to the public could create a document that would inform and support the development of persuasive arguments for noise reduction.

Dissemination of Information

Although articles on noise occasionally appear in the mainstream media, they usually focus on a specific problem considered to be “news” at the moment. Currently, no concerted, coordinated efforts are being made to disseminate basic, authoritative information in an effective way. Experience has shown (e.g., OECD, 1991) that an effective noise information campaign will require a variety of messages for specific target audiences and a continuous stream of messages that highlight advances in noise reduction.

EPA has a website and a modest program related to public information ( However, several of the links on this site lead to sources of information that are badly outdated. EPA needs much more support and the cooperation of other agencies and organizations to provide accurate, authoritative, timely information to the public.

An alliance of stakeholders would be a major step toward the creation of a comprehensive plan to develop and disseminate public information. One of the major stakeholders in this alliance should be the engineering community, which has the capability of developing methods and technologies for reducing noise at the source. Specific interests of professional and other societies include air and surface trans-

Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

portation noise, noise from air-conditioning systems, noise control in buildings, aeroacoustics, flow noise, and others. Specialists from a number of engineering disciplines could help craft messages intelligible to the public about successful efforts to reduce noise. People from other disciplines could contribute information on the effects of noise on hearing and other health effects. The public should also be informed about current activities of government agencies to reduce noise, and communities should help each other by making information available about successful efforts to reduce or control noise.


In the past the public has been a driving force behind the establishment of noise control programs in the United States. Armed with accurate, up-to-date information, public action and opinion could again become an effective force. Unfortunately, information available to the public is currently scattered among numerous federal agencies and numerous sites on the Internet, and most of the books written to inform the public are relatively old and are based on outdated information.

EPA is the only federal agency with the authority to support public action and the capability of addressing all aspects of the noise problem. The U.S. Code requires that EPA “develop and disseminate information and educational materials to all segments of the public on the public health and other effects of noise and the most effective means for noise control, through the use of materials for school curricula, volunteer organizations, radio and television programs, publication, and other means.” At this time, however, EPA does not have the internal resources to create a large public information program, and it is likely that much of the effort will have to be done through contractors.

The labeling of product noise emission levels should be a critical aspect of a program designed to benefit the public and enable people to make informed purchasing decisions. Although EPA has labeling authority, it might be more practical for professional organizations, trade associations, and standards organizations to develop labeling methodology for specific products because of the wide variety of products and noise measurement methods.

Professional organizations should take the lead in the development and dissemination of information about noise to the public. Engineering societies (e.g., Institute of Noise Control Engineering, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, SAE International) can deliver the message that, given demand by the public, engineering solutions to noise problems can be found. Other societies can deliver messages related to the effects of noise on hearing and the effects of noise on health.

Recommendation 10-1: The Environmental Protection Agency should take the following actions under the authority of 42 USC 65, Section 4913, to improve public information and education on the effects of noise and the most effective means of controlling noise:

  • Conduct a survey of all activities by federal agencies related to noise, and publish URLs that provide information of interest to the public.

  • Develop a categorized list of stakeholders with interests in noise (e.g., professional societies, scientific societies, citizens groups).

  • Help organize a coalition of current stakeholders with the goal of improving the availability of information on noise to the public.

  • Develop educational materials to inform the public of the health effects of noise, especially noise-induced hearing loss and cardiovascular effects.

  • Develop information to help the public understand the benefits of using personal hearing protection devices.

  • Provide information on the selection and use of hearing protection devices, making intelligent decisions about frequenting high noise exposure events, the importance of reducing noise exposures by buying quieter products, and being vigilant and active in public policy decision making about community noise zoning issues.

Recommendation 10-2: Engineering professional societies such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Society of Automotive Engineers, and Institute of Noise Control Engineering of the USA should develop engineering information on noise control to help the public understand techniques for reducing noise emissions.


ASA (Acoustical Society of America). 2009. American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools. Melville, NY: ASA. See also booklet on classroom acoustics. Available online at

ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association). 1991. Combating Noise in the ’90s: A National Strategy for the United States. Available online at

Baron, R.A. 1970. The Tyranny of Noise. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Beranek, L.L. 2008. Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Berland, T. 1970. The Fight for Quiet. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bronzaft, A.L. 2008. How Do We Stimulate Collective Action to Motivate the Public to Demand Quiet? Presented at a workshop in conjunction with NOISE-CON 08, The 2008 National Conference on Noise Control Engineering, Dearborn, Michigan.

Bugliarello, G., A. Alexandre, J. Barnes, and C. Wakstein. 1976. The Impact of Noise Pollution. New York: Pergamon Press.

Bush, V. 1945. As We May Think. Available online at

Center for the Built Environment. 2009. Acoustical analysis in office environments using POE surveys. Available online at

Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

Jensen, K.L., E. Arebs, and L. Zagreus, L. 2005. Acoustical Quality in Office Workstations, as Assessed by Occupant Surveys. Available online at

KBDN (Kitchen and Bath Design News). 1999. New Survey Pinpoints Dishwasher Usage Trends. Available online at

Moss, J. 2008. Public pressure—an effective force. Based on a workshop held in Istanbul, Turkey, as part of INTER-NOISE 07, The 2007 International Congress on Noise Control Engineering, August 29, 2007. Part I, Noise/News International, 16(1):18–29. Part II, Noise/News International 16(2):10–25. Available online at http://www.noise/

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 1991. Fighting Noise in the 1990s. Paris: OECD.

ONCC (O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission). 2009. Available online at

U.S. Census Bureau. 2005. Housing Summary for the United States, Section 20, Construction and Housing, Table No. 944. Available online at

Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.

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Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.
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Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.
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Suggested Citation:"10 Public Information on Noise Control." National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Technology for a Quieter America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12928.
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Exposure to noise at home, at work, while traveling, and during leisure activities is a fact of life for all Americans. At times noise can be loud enough to damage hearing, and at lower levels it can disrupt normal living, affect sleep patterns, affect our ability to concentrate at work, interfere with outdoor recreational activities, and, in some cases, interfere with communications and even cause accidents. Clearly, exposure to excessive noise can affect our quality of life.

As the population of the United States and, indeed, the world increases and developing countries become more industrialized, problems of noise are likely to become more pervasive and lower the quality of life for everyone. Efforts to manage noise exposures, to design quieter buildings, products, equipment, and transportation vehicles, and to provide a regulatory environment that facilitates adequate, cost-effective, sustainable noise controls require our immediate attention.

Technology for a Quieter America looks at the most commonly identified sources of noise, how they are characterized, and efforts that have been made to reduce noise emissions and experiences. The book also reviews the standards and regulations that govern noise levels and the federal, state, and local agencies that regulate noise for the benefit, safety, and wellness of society at large. In addition, it presents the cost-benefit trade-offs between efforts to mitigate noise and the improvements they achieve, information sources available to the public on the dimensions of noise problems and their mitigation, and the need to educate professionals who can deal with these issues.

Noise emissions are an issue in industry, in communities, in buildings, and during leisure activities. As such, Technology for a Quieter America will appeal to a wide range of stakeholders: the engineering community; the public; government at the federal, state, and local levels; private industry; labor unions; and nonprofit organizations. Implementation of the recommendations in Technology for a Quieter America will result in reduction of the noise levels to which Americans are exposed and will improve the ability of American industry to compete in world markets paying increasing attention to the noise emissions of products.


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