Turn down the volume!
For years the World Health Organization and other experts have been sounding the alarm over the negative effects on health of noise pollution in cities.
It turns out (no surprise) that constant exposure to loud motorcycles, blaring loudspeakers in cars, back-up warning beepers on trucks and all the other din in a city can cause hearing loss, cognitive impairment, heart disease and strokes, not to mention stress and depression.
Still, for far too long politicians haven’t taken these warnings seriously. That’s despite the fact that noise is one of the top complaints among people living in big cities. In fact, it’s the No. 1 complaint to New York City’s 311 line and was No. 5 on Toronto’s in 2017.
Now, Mayor John Tory has asked city staff conducting a review of the current noise bylaw to take a look at “best practices and pilot projects being undertaken in other cities,” such as Edmonton and London, England.
While that review isn’t expected to come to city council until late in 2019, the mayor has also asked staff to recommend short-term measures that could be enacted sooner.
Tory is on the right track, but he needs to take a stronger, more urgent stand on this issue. Studies that have compared people in cities to those in quieter regions show that the situation is dire.
For example, a 2017 study that measured noise pollution and hearing loss in 50 cities (Toronto was not among them) to create a World Hearing Index found someone living in the loudest cities — Cairo, Paris, Beijing, Delhi and Guangzhou, China — had the hearing ability of someone 20 years older than them who lived in a quieter place. Even people living in the quietest cities that were measured — Zurich, Vienna, Oslo, Munich and Stockholm — had a hearing loss equivalent to someone 10 years older.
And, alarmingly, in excessively noisy areas children exhibit lower reading comprehension and logical reasoning skills than those in quiet environments.
So what can be done? Lots — when the political will exists to treat noise as a health hazard, much the same as other environmental factors like air pollution.
Consider Edmonton’s pilot project. It is experimenting with a sound-trap system that’s activated when noise from cars and motorcycles exceed a certain threshold. When it is up and running, licence plates of offenders will be recorded, much as photo radar catches speeders, and tickets sent out.
Other cities, such as Vancouver and London, are aggressively ticketing people with excessively loud vehicles and motorcycles and collecting huge fines for city coffers in the process.
In his directive to city staff, Tory notes that noise from vehicles “is disturbing people in their homes, during the day and at night, it is disrupting business and it is having a negative impact on tourists, all in the apparent cause of feeding the egos of inconsiderate people.”
But the mayor shouldn’t just focus on excessive noise from cars and trucks.
City officials should also look to both Beaconsfield and Westmount, Que., which despite pressure from landscapers recently imposed strict limits on the use of noisy leaf blowers.
They could also study the experience of Texas, which is experimenting with a new “quiet concrete” that reduces highway sound levels to 5.8 decibels on average, the equivalent of a 70-per-cent reduction in traffic.
Or New York City, a leader on the noise-reduction front out of necessity. That city even banned ice cream trucks from playing music when they are parked at curbs and created lesson plans for teachers on the public health issues surrounding noise in an effort to change attitudes.
In fact, changing attitudes may be the most important step city officials can take to curb noise pollution. “It took decades to educate people on the dangers of second-hand smoke,” anti-noise protester Bradley Vite told the Washington Post recently. “We may need decades to show the impact of second-hand noise.”
One can only hope not. The situation requires urgent action — now.
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