When considering environmental health, we tend to think about what we can see (like pollution), smell (like car exhaust), and feel (like heat waves). But what about what we can hear?
Long term exposure to high noise levels has been shown to have a negative impact on human health. It disrupts sleep and contributes to stress, which can exacerbate mental health issues and conditions like cardiovascular disease. Despite those links to negative health impacts, many urbanites think that excessive noise is just an unavoidable aspect of living in a city.
But not Lugardy Raymond. She is the Compliance Inspector for the City of Boston’s Air Pollution Control Commission (APCC). In addition to reviewing, permitting, and regulating activities that emit fumes that can be harmful to human health - like idling, burning at industrial sites, and abrasive blasting/chemical cleaning, she also deals with disruptive sounds that can be harmful to human health.
When a constituent calls with a noise complaint, Lugardy investigates personally. “I head out to the location, and measure the level of decibels. If it’s in violation, I’ll meet with them or send the homeowner or business owner a notice of violation. I’ll explain what the issue is, and advise them on how to bring the noise down to acceptable levels. Then they have 15 days to provide the APCC with their plan for maintaining that acceptable level permanently. We deal with complaints on a case by case basis. Depending on the complexity of the problem, the process may take longer than that if improvements still need to be made.”
The Boston Municipal Code sets the standard for noise that is unreasonable or excessive. The APCC also has its own regulations that are based on zoning (residential, business, and industrial). It determines whether noise exceeds these standards and shares the responsibility of enforcing them with the Boston Police Department (BPD).
“The APCC is concerned with construction and industrial sites, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment,” Lugardy explains. “Things like car or fire alarms, loud parties, and amplification devices should be brought to the attention of the BPD.” Constituents should contact the Massachusetts Port Authority for concerns regarding noise related to airplanes and helicopters.
But of course, as Lugardy explains, noisy activities are sometimes necessary -- like overnight construction projects. And the APCC works with construction companies to minimize their impact on Bostonians. Construction projects that exceed acceptable noise levels need to apply for a permit in advance of the project, and reasonable hours are enforced for these projects. So before calling the APCC about noise in their neighborhood, people should first check the List of Approved After-Hours Building Construction to see if a project in their neighborhood has been approved to make excessive noise between the hours of 11pm and 7am. The list is prepared by Inspectional Services and updated every Friday.
Occasionally, emergency repairs and overnight street construction may need to happen before they can make it onto the list. The APCC is open regular business hours, so if you have questions about a project at night or during the weekend, residents can call 311. They can also check to see if their Neighborhood Coordinator has more information about the project. Contact information about Neighborhood Coordinators is available here.
“Noise really affects people’s quality of life. It affects their health,” Lugardy says. “I hear from people all the time who are having a really hard time. Sometimes they haven’t slept for several nights in a row. Sometimes the noise is keeping their baby up all night. It can be really hard on people! And we work really hard to try and figure out a solution for them. It makes me feel good to be able to help people.”
Lugardy explains that sometimes, all it takes to solve a noise issue is to get the conversation started between neighbors. “Sometimes people don’t know that the noise they’re making was so disruptive!”
When asked how community members can be noise-conscious neighbors, Lugardy identifies three main sources of residential noise: landscaping, snow removal, and air conditioning. Community members can get their landscaping and snow removal done during most considerate hours. In Boston anything louder than 70 decibels is considered too much at any time, and anything louder than 50 decibels is considered unreasonable between 11pm and 7am.
Not sure what 50 decibels sounds like? Here’s a handy resource from the California Department of Transportationto help you figure it out.
As far as air conditioning is concerned, Lugardy says that something as simple as making sure your A/C unit is properly installed and running efficiently can reduce excessive noise. These types of fixes can also improve energy efficiency and help residents save energy and money. It’s a win-win-win.
Noise levels are one of many environmental factors that determine how happy and healthy people feel in their communities. Working to maintain healthy volume levels during daily activities helps to make our city a more enjoyable and healthy place to live. For more information about healthy noise levels, noise regulations, and filing a complaint, visit the Air Pollution Control Commission's resources.