U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution

The first major piece of federal legislation in the area of “noise pollution,” the Noise Control Act directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce major noise sources by identifying permissible decibel levels.

Summary of Event

Noise, like other forms of pollution, increases proportionally to the increase in population and the use of applied technology. In the past, the lack of progress toward noise abatement was primarily a result of a widespread apathy on the part of both the public and governmental agencies. As the general level of environmental awareness increased during the 1960’s, the public began to demand quieter products and a regulation of environmental noise. This demand culminated in 1972 with the enactment of the Noise Control Act. This law sets noise-emission standards for commercial products, as well as aircraft, railroads, and motor vehicles. This act also specifies that the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;noise (EPA) is empowered to coordinate all federal programs regarding noise research and noise control, as well as to act as a federal clearinghouse for noise regulations. The EPA was also given the authority to require environmental noise impact studies for new highways and industrial manufacturing plants. If deemed that the resulting environmental noise would be too great, project approval could be denied until the potential problem was addressed satisfactorily. Noise Control Act (1972)
Noise pollution
[kw]U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Government Regulates Noise Pollution, U.S. (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Regulates Noise Pollution, U.S. Government (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Noise Pollution, U.S. Government Regulates (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Pollution, U.S. Government Regulates Noise (Oct. 27, 1972)
Noise Control Act (1972)
Noise pollution
[g]North America;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution[00930]
[g]United States;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution[00930]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution[00930]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Government Regulates Noise Pollution[00930]
Rogers, Paul G.
Tunney, John
Muskie, Edmund

Attempts to regulate noise were not new, nor were noise problems merely another unwanted effluent of the industrial revolution. The earliest known reference to noise control dates to the time of Julius Caesar, when legislation was enacted to ban chariots from the streets of Rome after dark because of their excessive noise. Even before the invention of the internal combustion engine, the din created on the cobblestone streets of London by iron-rimmed wagon wheels rendered pedestrian conversation impossible. By the 1920’s, New York City was considered the noisiest city in the world as a result of not only motorcars and trolleys but also the elevated railways then in use. The problem of noise became so severe that the city officials appointed a noise abatement commission in 1929, although no legislated control ever resulted. A similar commission, formed in Great Britain in 1934, went so far as to recommend maximum permissible limits for motor vehicle noise as measured by a noise meter. This recommendation became law in 1968. In 1935, Germany enacted the first legislation to control vehicle noise by defined quantitative limits.

Although a League of Nations commission reported in 1939 that automotive noise had become a worldwide problem, 1940 model cars were actually quieter than horse-drawn vehicles traveling on paved streets. Over the three decades preceding the Noise Control Act of 1972, the noise emitted by individual cars changed very little because noise control devices such as mufflers quieted the much more powerful and noisy engines. Nevertheless, the problem of traffic noise increased exponentially because of the increasing number of cars in service and the higher speeds made possible by improved roads. In addition to automotive noise, railroad and jet aircraft noise became acute problems during the 1960’s, and strong public pressure for Congress to do something escalated.

Although the detrimental effects of noise had been discussed for many years, the only measures passed by Congress prior to the Noise Control Act of 1972 were the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968 Aircraft Noise Abatement Act (1968) and a section of the Clean Air Act of 1970. Clean Air Act Amendments (1970) This section required the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study of noise, hold public hearings, and report its results and recommendations to Congress.

The EPA report was duly submitted on January 26, 1972. The gist of the report was that noise had a significant negative impact on U.S. citizens, causing both physiological and psychological disturbances such as hearing impairment, interference with sleep, and stress reactions. Research also suggested that repeated exposure to high-intensity noise would cause permanent hearing loss, while less intense noises could produce irritation and annoyance. The report concluded that noise adversely affected approximately eighty million people in the United States (40 percent of the population) and was costing $4 billion annually as a result of noise-induced accidents, absenteeism, inefficiency, and compensation claims for hearing loss.

The Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee reported HR-11021, the Noise Control Act, drafted by Florida congressman Paul G. Rogers, on February 19, 1972. This legislation was based on the EPA report and on hearings held by Rogers’s Subcommittee on Public Health and Environment during the previous summer. The testimony received indicated that most major sources of noise pollution affecting the population of the United States could be reduced using the available technology. The major sources of noise to be addressed by the bill were transportation, machinery, appliances, and other commercial products. Additionally, HR-11021 would coordinate federal research and activities, establish federal noise-emission standards for commercial products, and provide the noise characteristics of these products to the public. HR-11021 was passed by the House on February 29 after several amendments attempting to regulate aircraft noise and sonic booms were rejected.

On April 12 and 13, the Senate Public Works Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution held hearings on a Senate noise-control bill (S-3342) cosponsored by Senators John Tunney and Edmund Muskie. The three important provisions of this bill were regulation of aircraft noise emissions by the EPA, rather than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); development of criteria that indicate levels of noise that adversely affect public health and welfare; and a provision that federal regulation for new-product noise-emission standards not prohibit cities or states from enacting more stringent standards, if deemed necessary.

On September 19, the full Public Works Committee reported a revised bill S-3342, which was a combination of the original S-3342 and the House-passed bill HR-11021. Although endorsed by eight environmental organizations, the modified bill left the final setting of aircraft noise standards with the FAA, but the EPA could provide input. The Senate passed S-3342 on October 13, after two days of debate and after adopting four amendments. The legislators then passed HR-11021, which was modified by the insertion of the language of S-3342.

The House agreed to the Senate amendments on October 18, after the vote was initially blocked by Missouri congressman Durward G. Hall, Hall, Durward G. who objected to the press of year-end legislation and protested the absence of a House-Senate conference resulting from lack of time. The bill was defended by Representative Harley O. Staggers, Staggers, Harley O. who told Hall that it was imperative to pass the bill during this legislative session because many cities and states were on the verge of enacting their own noise-control regulations. Staggers convinced Hall to drop his objection, since a flood of different regulations, rather than a uniform federal law, would harass industry and retard progress. Later the same day, the Senate agreed to the House amendments by voice vote. The EPA-FAA jurisdictional problem was resolved by a last-minute compromise between the House and Senate sponsors of differing noise-control measures, and congressional action was completed on the last day of the legislative session. The Noise Control Act of 1972 became the first major piece of legislation aimed specifically at reducing most forms of environmental noise detrimental to humans.


The Noise Control Act of 1972 was designed to help alleviate four major sources of noise: transportation, construction, engines and motors, and electrical and electronic equipment. This was to be accomplished by requiring manufacturers to produce quieter products by legislating maximum allowable noise levels. Also, in addition to requiring environmental impact studies, the EPA was empowered to conduct and finance research, to develop and publish information on hazardous noise levels, to disseminate public information on noise control, to identify major noise sources, and to define permissible noise levels for each source. As a direct result of the act, the EPA prepared model noise ordinances which specified a sound level that was not to be exceeded. These sound levels depended on the zoned use of the area (residential, commercial, or industrial) and the time of day. The actual values depended on the particular community and usually took into account typical background noise levels. Even so, in some regions, the levels were initially set so low that local crickets were in violation. The EPA was also directed to coordinate all federal noise research, to control programs, and to provide technical assistance to state and local governments.

Among the major sources of noise that were targeted by the EPA were portable air compressors, medium and heavy trucks, motorcycles, buses, garbage trucks, jackhammers, railroad cars, snowmobiles, and lawnmowers. The EPA strategy for abating noise from these sources included writing noise-emission standards that encourage proper maintenance or encourage the modification of existing devices and the setting of more stringent requirements for new equipment so that noise levels would be reduced as the older models are replaced.

Although the EPA has the primary responsibility for most federal efforts to control noise, other agencies became concerned with special areas of noise control. The FAA sets criteria and standards for aircraft noise, with the EPA providing technical information and pertinent advice. Most of the research and testing are performed for the FAA by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force. The Federal Highway Administration legislates noise-control standards for motor vehicles, and the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Safety shares the responsibility for enforcement with state and local agencies.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration;noise regulations (OSHA) sets and enforces regulations to protect workers’ hearing for all companies engaged in interstate commerce. OSHA standards set the limits of permissible noise exposure on a sliding scale so that the maximum allowable time of exposure is reduced as the sound intensity level increases. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enacted sound-insulation standards for the walls and floors of multifamily residences that qualify for HUD mortgage insurance. HUD also sets guidelines for maximum permissible noise levels at housing construction sites. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) mandated that workers in underground mines be provided with hearing protection devices. These rules are enforced by the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration. The National Bureau of Standards continues to be actively engaged in a program of research and testing to help control noise in factories and commercial work areas, as well as in homes and offices.

Although the Noise Control Act of 1972 leaves the primary responsibility for controlling noise with state and local governments, noise guidelines and regulations for interstate road transportation fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA. The EPA also requires that protective measures such as walls or buffer zones be used wherever interstate highway noise exceeds certain levels. Stricter standards apply where highways pass schools, hospitals, and libraries.

The Noise Control Act has done much to ensure auditory comfort and to protect the hearing of the general population as well as to guard against auditory hazards in the workplace. Noise Control Act (1972)
Noise pollution

Further Reading

  • Baron, Robert Alex. The Tyranny of Noise. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. A devastating exposé of environmental noise problems by the head of a leading antinoise organization. At the time this book was written, Robert Baron’s appearance as an expert witness before congressional hearings was instrumental in helping to make Congress more aware of the noise problem and of many citizens’ frustration by the lack of congressional action.
  • Berendt, Raymond D., Edith L. R. Corliss, and Morris S. Ojalvo. Quieting: A Practical Guide to Noise Control. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 2000. A guidebook that offers practical solutions for ordinary noise problems that the average person is likely to encounter.
  • Kryter, Karl D. The Effects of Noise on Man. 2d ed. New York: Academic Press, 1985. Critical review and interpretation of original source literature on effects of noise. Chapter 12 discusses regulatory problems and details guidelines for assessment and control.
  • Miller, Richard Kendall. Handbook of Industrial Noise Management. Atlanta: Fairmont Press, 1976. Contains the OSHA noise standards as well as legal guidelines for a cost-benefit approach to noise control.
  • Still, Henry. In Quest of Quiet: Meeting the Menace of Noise Pollution. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1970. A call to citizen action against the escalating problem of noise, this work identifies the main sources of noise and suggests ways to quiet them.
  • Strong, William J., and George R. Plitnik. Music, Speech, and Audio. Provo, Utah: Soundprint, 1992. Comprehensive treatment for the layperson covering many aspects of sound, including chapters on hearing impairments, noise, and controlling environmental sound.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Public Hearings on Noise Abatement and Control. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971. Public hearings on noise, as required by Clean Air Act of 1970, used to compile relevant background information for the Noise Control Act of 1972.

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