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Environmental Noise Pollution: What’s Law Got to Do with It?

posted on Tue, Jan 8 2013 11:45 am by Monica Hammer

How public health attorneys respond to new medical knowledge can have a dramatic impact on public health. For example, after the scientific community showed that lead was poisonous and a pervasive threat, especially to children, public health attorneys crafted legal solutions at the federal and state levels that mandated screenings and reduced hazards in housing. As a result, incidence of childhood lead poisoning drastically decreased. Other opportunities to utilize legal expertise in the face of public health challenges are arising as medical researchers seek new scientific insight. An example can be found in recent research on environmental noise pollution.

In 2011, a report by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Center said 1.8 percent of all heart attacks across Europe were attributable to noise. The report also said children experience cognitive impairment, hypertension, and elevated stress hormones when exposed to noise pollution, with a disproportionate burden of disease falling on low-income and minority communities. Even fetuses are at risk of permanent hearing loss from systemic loud noise exposure in utero. Traffic noise alone is associated with a higher burden of disease in Europe than lead, radon, benzene, PCBs, formaldehyde and ozone, according to the report.

The traditional legal remedy for environmental noise pollution is a private cause of action under nuisance tort law. When a noise unreasonably interferes with the quiet enjoyment of a neighbor’s property right, a lawsuit can provide injunctive relief and other compensatory remedies. Nuisance torts work well when two neighbors have adjoining property lines and damages can be traced to one source of activity. 

Now that the health risks of noise pollution are better known, the public is seeking protection from its adverse health impacts outside of tort law. Local government retains the authority to restrict the use, operation or movement of products that produce noise, and most municipalities have noise ordinances regulating the time, place and manner of use. Unfortunately, enforcement options are less than satisfactory. Calling the police is not a cost-effective use of resources; and although some cities have special complaint lines, inspectors often arrive at the scene after the noise source has been removed. 

There is a growing sense of urgency regarding environmental noise pollution as the status quo is endangering the public’s health. Moreover, if nothing is done, the burden of disease from environmental noise pollution will increase as communities grow in density. Public health practitioners are working to translate scientific insight surrounding environmental noise pollution into lessons of innovation. Some consider the law to be an obstacle, but others are incorporating best practices and emerging technologies with full knowledge that the law can serve as a key tool for safeguarding the public.   

The City of San Francisco used modern mapping technology to create a noise map because it recognized that tracking community exposure to noise is a vital component to evaluating the health risks. This map is used by policy-makers, advocates, and building and planning departments to draft thoughtful and intelligent legal standards and enforcement strategies. In addition, the city recently completed a Health Impact Assessment that measured the change in stress, heart attack, and sleep disturbance due to noise. 

How the law will be utilized to decrease the burden of disease associated with environmental noise pollution will depend upon the tenacity of the attorneys in the field and their ability to incorporate new scientific knowledge into useful application of the law.

This blog was developed by Monica Hammer, J.D. visiting attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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