Gauging the Impact of Noise on Children’s Learning

Gauging the Impact of Noise on Children’s Learning

August 28, 2012 at 4:00 am

An airplane passes over an apartment building on its way to LaGuardia Airport. The FAA and Port Authority have soundproofed many of the schools around the city's airports. AP/Frank Franklin

Based on the records of calls to 311, noise is the greatest quality of life concern for New York City residents. While many New Yorkers might scoff at the goal of trying to reduce noise in a city famed for making it, research indicates that excessive noise can have a serious negative impact on the way children learn.

Through an updated noise code and attempts to soundproof schools near airports and major roadways, the city has tried to fix the problem, but researchers believe that nobody is totally sure if these solutions have helped solve the problem.

According to the World Health Organization, regular exposure to noise over 80 decibels (db.) can cause hearing damage, impaired task performance, impaired cardiovascular health and increased aggression. Children seem to be more vulnerable than adults.

Dr. Charlotte Clark, a researcher on the effects of environment on health and behavior at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine at the University of London, said transportation noise near schools is one of the biggest noise-related problems.

Traffic Noise and Schools

“Twenty studies show external noise, like traffic and airport noise, can have a negative influence on children’s cognition,” said Clark at her talk on Aug. 20 at  Inter-Noise, a four-day conference in New York City dedicated to reducing noise in cities.

The decibel level of various noises. Regular exposure to noise over 80 decibels (db.) can be damaging to one's health, according to the World Health Organization. Information from New York City Department of Environmental protection.

Clark pointed to a number of past studies, like Bronzcraft and McCarthy’s 1975 study of New York City elementary school students in a school where half of the classrooms were near a noisy elevated train track, and the others were on a quieter side. That study found that the reading comprehension skills of kids who sat on the noisy side lagged, on average, three months to a year behind their peers on the quieter side.

Another study, conducted in Munich, suggests that weakened cognition due to noise is not permanent, however. In that study, children who left a noisy school showed improved memory and reading comprehension after two years.

Clark herself was one of the lead researchers on the Ranch Project, the largest study on the impact of road and airplane noises in children’s cognition. Between 2001 and 2003, the Ranch Project studied over 2,000 students, ages 9-10, in 89 schools in three European countries. The study found that noise from road traffic, either near the home or school, had little impact on children’s reading comprehension, but noise from airplanes definitely did (a .008 point drop in test scores for every added decibel).

How Much Noise is Okay for Kids?

The Ranch Project found that reading comprehension tends to drop off at 55 decibels, and Clark pointed to the World Health Organization’s 2000 “Guidelines for Community Noise” as a good indicator of what’s acceptable.

While building codes address noise issues for schools before they’re built, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said that they do not monitor noise outside of school buildings.

Those guidelines suggest that playgrounds be no louder than 55 db., unoccupied classrooms no louder than 35 db., the area directly outside of one’s living area be no louder than 50 db., and sounds from directly outside one’s bedroom be no louder than 30 db.

Soundproofing and Its Limits

Since airport noise seems to have the most significant impact on children’s learning environments, the FAA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have co-operated a noise reduction program for the past three decades to ensure that schools comply with the city’s noise code, which is enforced by the City’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“To date, the Port Authority and the FAA have soundproofed 77 schools in New York and New Jersey. As of early May we’ve spent $286 million,” said a spokesperson for the Port Authority.

The largest soundproofing push occurred in 2003, when the Port Authority announced a $44.5 million pot for school soundproofing.

The majority of those schools were near airports. One was Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School in East Elmhurst, Queens, just under two miles from LaGuardia Airport.

“I think overall it had a good outcome on the classrooms,” said Nicholas Melito, director of admissions at Monsignor McClancy. “The teachers like that they don’t have to stop teaching whenever an airplane flies over the building.”

However, Clark says there isn’t enough research on soundproofing to know what methods are or aren’t effective.

“We don’t really know if sound insulation works. We need a big study,” said Clark.

Updates to the Noise Code

While the New York City Zoning Resolution and Building Code dictates the noise requirements for buildings, including schools, and the City’s Environmental Quality Review Standards monitor transportation noise, there is another important document designed to keep the “living” city a little quieter.

The city’s regulations for noise, laid out in the lengthy noise code, are governed by the New York City Department of Environment Protection. The DEP only conducts an investigation when a complaint is made.

These rules, which cover every noise, from construction sites to vehicles to neighbors upstairs, were adopted in 1972 and went 40 years without being altered. In 2007, they were updated with stricter, clearer guidelines that made significant changes to the maximum loudness permitted for construction sites — particularly those near schools and hospitals — bars and restaurants, and many vehicles.

“There has been no substantial uptick in noise inspections since 2007, after an initial rise in complaints following the Noise Code revision that year. Overall, complaints have in fact come down during this period,” said Corey Chambliss, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

The stricter requirements, and tougher penalties for violations, have likely had an impact on noise — particularly construction noise. However, at the 2010 International Conference on Urban Health at the New York Academy of Medicine, researchers who’d monitored noise at 60 locations around Manhattan said the average noise in the majority of those locations was over 70 db.

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