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Noise Pollution Seen as Major Health Issue in DC

 

Accompanying images can be viewed in the December 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Enrique has a severe hearing disability. Even with hearing aids, it is difficult to hear conversations. He joined his friends at the neighborhood bar for happy hour. Regrettably, the loud din of music and shouting measured 90 decibels. He asked the manager to turn it down a bit. The manager said “no” and further he said it gets louder at night.

A musician plays at the entrance to the Foggy Bottom metro station with an amplifier. Decibel level 92 (dangerous). Vendors asked him to turn it down. He refused. Vendors ask police for assistance. Police refused.

A Sysco truck noisily idles outside an 11th Street restaurant for an hour awaiting the establishment’s owner.

An International Limousine Service bus noisily idles for an hour outside a 14th Street apartment building.

Washington Post restaurant reviewer Tom Sietsema began a decibel rating for each reviewed restaurant since excessive din became the number one complaint by diners.

Many folks, if they think about noise, they view it as an annoyance, but statistics paint a very different picture. According to the Alexandria, Virginia-based CAI Community Associations Institute, noise is the number one reason that people move from their homes. According to Cardozo/Shaw ANC Commissioner Paul Spaulding, “Noise is the number one neighborhood complaint.” On its website the federal Environmental Protection Agency addresses the issue of neighborhood noise and related matters.

But far beyond the negative impact affecting residential areas, the following are matters of major concern:

Hearing loss has increased from 15 to 60 percent across every age group as reported by New York City’s League of Hard of Hearing, having completed an 18-year survey of 64,000 people;

About 75 percent of hearing loss in the typical American is not caused by the aging process but instead by our environment;

Of persons between the ages of 45 and 64, 27 percent  acknowledge a hearing loss;

Experiments by industrial psychologist Foster Kennedy indicate that productivity of workers decreases by 20 percent in noisy environments;

Continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels can damage one’s hearing according to the League of Hard of Hearing, which estimates a total of 26 million persons;

Only about 20 percent of those needing hearing aids have them;

A Denmark firm published a research study on traffic  noise in 2012 which found that every 10 decibel increase equals a 12 percent increase in heart attacks. Similarly, a recent London study showed a link between cardiovascular problems and street noise, that nine percent of persons 75 years and older who are exposed to street noise in excess of 60 decibels are more likely to experience cardiovascular problems requiring hospitalization.

Thus, noise needs to be framed not as simply annoying but as damaging for everyone’s physical and mental health. The District government, as well as  federal agencies and local businesses need to pay more attention to this health issue.

Trucks, Busses and Sirens

For those who own and operate trucks, they need to examine the District’s noise standards. Right now, for example, Sysco and International Limousine Service create much excessive noise, especially when idling well beyond the amount of time allowable under DC regulations. An example of this problem was experienced by this reporter when once residing in the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue, NW; at the time there were several limo drivers who lived nearby who would leave their vans idling for hours.

 

As for the seeming often excessive use of sirens, use policies need to be carefully reviewed to make clear that they should not be sounded except when on emergency travel and not for when the U Street fire engine company dispatches one pumper or hook and ladder trucks to the Corcoran Street Safeway for a grocery shopping mission or when other siren-equipped vehicle activate theirs when all that is being undertaken is a visit to a local restaurant. An example of this was reported to The InTowner by a resident who was dining one afternoon at the Dupont Italian Kitchen at 17th and R Streets when several vehicles with sirens blaring came to a stop and the occupants emerged for the purpose of having lunch there also.

Federal Government

Although DC has little control of the federal government, city officials need to emphasize to  federal agency heads that noise is a physical and mental issue for those who live and work in the District. They need to re-examine the excessive use of sirens and further call attention to the excessive noise, especially affecting residential neighborhoods, caused by helicopters flying low over the city’s streets, 90 percent of which are either owned or contracted by the federal government.

District Government

The City Council could pass laws banning car alarms and gas powered leaf blowers. Hardly anyone pays attention car alarms, which seemingly serve no purpose other than disturbing the peace since no one pays any attention anyway. One Columbia Heights neighbor complained that a car alarm sounded for six hours until 11 p.m. DC Council could also ban gas powered leaf blowers. The solid waste managers at the public works department (DPW) need to ensure that trash collection crews should not start pick-ups prior to the mandated 7 a.m. start time as a resident reported happened in his neighborhood on Saturday, October 14th.

Metropolitan Police Department

There is sentiment in the neighborhoods that the police need to assign a higher priority to noise violations, and especially to enforce the noise law as it applies to blasting car stereos. If the car stereo can be heard one car length away, it should be cited. To do this effectively, more police units need to be provided with decibel readers.

DC Code 2700.14 states, “Unless specifically provided by the Act, a sound that constitutes a noise disturbance shall be considered a violation of the Act. . . .” “Noise disturbance” is defined as “[a]ny sound which is loud and raucous or loud and unseemly and unreasonably disturbs the peace and quiet of the reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities in the vicinity thereof. . . . The Mayor should not be required to measure the decibel level of the noise in order to find a noise disturbance.”

So, the law is on the books and simply needs to be enforced.

Businesses

Once businesses realize that this is a vital issue, they can reduce the noise. One way is decreased use of leaf and snow blowers. Another is the always contentious problem of music and crowd noise emanating outside from within bars and restaurants and, especially, nightclubs; such noise must be restricted to less than 60 decibels; the next step ought to be for these establishments to work toward lowering interior decibel counts to 80 so as to protect both customers and employees from hearing loss damage.

More businesses should follow the lead in reporting noise levels as does the Post‘s Tom Sietsema and also Open Table. For Open Table reviews, one of the five key questions is the sound, or noise factor. Open Table labels its rating of four to be “energetic.”

For restaurants seeking ways to alleviate ambient noise could use the now closed 14th Street Viridian restaurant as a model. Guided by designer David Knight, the owners installed eggshell padding under the tables, soft fabric around the columns and on the walls. Tom Sietsema also recommends linens on tables, low ceilings, pillows and bolsters and leather on banquettes and benches — all of which help to absorb excess noise.

The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCRA) needs to pay more attention to this area and, like the police, have more decibel readers available for inspectors other than those responding specifically to noise complaints.   

Residents

A recommended first step that can be taken to make one more proactive in addressing noise violations is to download the decibel free app for smartphones that will assist one in becoming noise-aware and will help residents in getting the police to take their noise complaints seriously. Similarly, evidence from individuals’ noise tracking provided to their DC Council members could be especially helpful in calling attention to the problem in a way that will push the Council to recognize that excessive, but controllable, noise is an issue as disturbing physical and mental health.

*Larry Ray, an attorney and resident of Columbia Heights, is a former multi-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in both Dupont Circle and later in Columbia Heights and has also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association. As a lawyer/mediator he has mediated hundreds of noise disputes and appeared as a noise expert on NBC’s Today Show.

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.