Photo credit: Alby Headrick licensed under CC BY 2.0

By David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

It seems obvious we need a better definition of noise than the one we’ve got, doesn’t it? We all think we know what “noise” is, but the technical and legal people who develop policies and regulations need to have a solid, authoritative, operational definition and history doesn’t provide them with one.

Believe it or not, the technical literature on noise—written by legions of distinguished physicists and engineers during the last century—defines noise simply as “unwanted sound.” That elegant definition certainly complies with the principle of Occam’s Razor, but is it enough?

But unfortunately it also suggests that noise is subjective and not measurable—which is completely wrong. What does “unwanted” mean? Unwanted by whom? And the absence of a working, technical definition has helped opponents of noise-control regulations, who routinely say that noise is subjective and merely annoyance. The definition tacitly gives them permission to utter dismissive bromides like “one person’s noise is another person’s music.”

People have been fighting the noise issue for 40 years, but the tide began to turn in 2011 when the World Health Organization published the report, “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise (pdf).” It took awhile before the implications of that work were recognized here in the U.S., but within a few years U.S. policy makers began to realize that noise really is much, much more than annoyance, it’s actually a legitimate public health problem that affects hundreds of millions of people. In other words, they had to step back and recognize where this country’s policy pronouncements had been on this subject 50 years earlier—when, in 1968-69 the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Speech and Hearing Association organized the first global meeting on noise as a public health problem at which Surgeon General William H. Stewart was the keynote speaker.

So here we are in the 50th anniversary year: should we celebrate by proposing a new, operational definition of ‘noise” in objective terms that medical and public health professionals can work with and that lends itself to effective and enforceable public policy? Perhaps such a definition already exists? If so, where? TQC co-founder Arline Bronzaft, who’s been fighting the noise battle far longer than most of us, suggests this similarly elegant phrase: noise = “harmful sound” (instead of “unwanted sound”).

This could be backed up with a longer operational definition, such as:

Noise = harmful sound. Noise is radiant energy in the form of vibrations or pressure waves transmitted through a medium such as air or water that can be both directly and indirectly harmful and dangerous as well as disruptive or disturbing to humans and other organisms and to structures. For example acoustic waves may be used to shatter kidney stones or to break glass. ‘Harmful sounds’ may be perceptible or imperceptible depending on their frequency and amplitude. Noise is objectively measured with hand-held instruments designed to international standards using either the A-weighting method (preferred in the USA) or the ITU-R 468 method (preferred in the EU, UK and elsewhere). The World Health Organization, the European Union, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publish specific levels of ‘noise’ that are harmful to human beings.

What do you think?

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