Noise, Health and Neighborhood Disparities

"It is not only the ear that can be harmed by noise. Noise must be considered a hazard to our overall health and well-being." - Dr. Arline Bronzaf

decibel chart

We are surrounded by a variety of sounds drifting through the air every day – but we often do not notice the sources of these sounds unless they are bothersome or distracting to our normal activities – becoming noise.

Noise, or too much noise is more than just an annoyance – it is a public health concern with harmful outcomes. Preventable noise-induced hearing loss is fairly common in the general population, affecting around 15% of Americans. However, the effects of noise go beyond impaired or damaged hearing. According to the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a growing body of scientific studies, being exposed to noise levels as low as 65 decibels (dB) for a prolonged period of time may increase a person’s risk of developing the following conditions: hypertension, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, dementia and sleep disturbances. Check out the diagram to the right to compare decibel levels of many common sounds and noises. Other health impacts of prolonged exposure to noise also include tinnitus, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes and cognitive impairment in children. Research strongly suggests that noise does not have to be loud in order to be harmful to health. Being exposed to any noise for an extended period can affect a person’s quality of life and mental well-being. At the other end of the scale, listening to a sound reaching 85 dB for more than eight hours at one time, or to a noise at 100 dB for even fifteen minutes, could lead to permanent hearing loss. The exposure to excessive, often unwanted sounds to a degree where normal activities and quality of life are impacted, is called noise pollution.

Communities in the US are unequally exposed to noise. A recent study found a significantly disparate distribution of noise pollution when looking at data about race/ethnicity and socioeconomic level in the US. Neighborhoods with larger communities of Asian and African American residents have higher levels of noise; additionally, as the average household income levels decrease and the proportion of non-white residents increase in a neighborhood, reports of neighborhood noise also increase. In the 1970s, the EPA noted early trends of noise pollution inequality in the US, finding that individuals with higher socioeconomic status tended to live in quieter neighborhoods.

What does this mean for NYC and Chinatown?

New York City (NYC) is not a city known for its quiet and serenity. From the screech of subway brakes being activated and the loud chatter of diners in small restaurants, to the resounding collection of trash in the morning and the hum of neighbors cooking or watching television, even noise seems to be bigger and bolder in NYC. In fact, noise – any “unwanted or disturbing sound” – is the top civic complaint among residents in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

As a bustling neighborhood at the nexus of multiple subway stops, major cross streets and truck routes, Chinatown is frequented by many New Yorkers and visitors. However, Chinatown is also home, workplace and community to more than 80,000 individuals, many of whom are older adults aged 65 years or older. Approximately 24,736 residents of Manhattan’s Community Board 3 (CD3), which includes Chinatown and the Lower East Side neighborhoods, are older adults. Of these senior residents, 34% live below the poverty line, and 37% live with ambulatory difficulties. 43% of CD3 seniors speak an Asian language at home. This vulnerable group of seniors – many of whom have limited English proficiency - is more likely to experience disparities in noise exposure and more likely to suffer from the health impacts of noise pollution.

Chinatown street view

Chinatown and Transportation Noise

Transportation is a key source of noise in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Residents and visitors are enveloped by non-stop traffic. Whether it is blaring sirens from trucks heading from the Holland Tunnel to Brooklyn, or the thunderous blasts of MTA trains crossing the Manhattan Bridge, street traffic sounds are a constant Chinatown backdrop.

This cacophony is not a good thing, especially for the health of residents and workers in the community who are exposed for long periods to noise that may range from 80 dB to over 100 dB. Traffic noise is the second biggest environmental problem following air pollution, according to the WHO and is associated with multiple stress-related health problems such as higher blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. The average risk of heart disease in people whose homes face a main street and who are exposed to average noise levels above 65-70 dB is 20% higher than the average risk of heart disease of people living on quieter streets. When looking at metro or transit noise, the Center for Hearing and Communication has stated that “Exposure to a noisy subway, for just 15 minutes a day, over time, can cause damage to hearing.”

Canal Street

Canal Street is the main roadway cutting through Chinatown and more often than not, it is clogged with vehicular traffic extending from the Holland Tunnel to the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge. Honking cars and trucks regularly drive noise levels above 85 dB. With narrow sidewalks and seven traffic lanes that are 10-to-13-feet wide, Canal Street resembles a highway more than a friendly neighborhood thoroughfare!

Manhattan Bridge

In 2016, 85,084 vehicles crossed the Manhattan Bridge, with westbound traffic volumes highest between 7-8am and between 4-5pm. Coupled with the MTA’s N/Q/B/D trains that cross the bridge every few minutes, residents around the Manhattan Bridge area of Chinatown are regularly exposed to high noise levels that might exceed 85 dB – a commonly cited sound threshold at which hearing damage begins if someone is exposed for over 8 hours.

Traffic-Related Noise Abatement Strategies

What can be done to help reduce traffic noise in a neighborhood like Chinatown? Here are a few examples of how traffic noise can be lessened to support residents or those who work in the area:

Chinatown and Construction Noise

Construction is another key source of noise in Chinatown, particularly those that last for many years. Several long-term development projects are expected to break ground in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. One can only imagine the sounds from years of demolition and construction: the noise and dust spewed from jackhammers and pile driving in addition to the endless caravan of trucks carrying and removing materials or debris from the site.

In dense, urban environments such as Chinatown, the impact of regular construction on city residents who already live in densely packed apartment buildings in close proximity to one another is already intense. Long-term construction related to large development projects lengthens the time during which residents need to tolerate noise and other disruptions. This can be made even worse when development projects are granted “after-hours” variance permits, which allows for construction activities that take place outside of normal, daytime construction hours of 7am to 6pm in the city. Late-night construction work can be incredibly disruptive to the community. Construction activities are also known to generate physical vibrations in nearby existing structures or buildings, affecting people near the site. Though there is limited research on the health impact of vibrations for residents living near construction sites, construction activities such as demolition, pile driving, and the use of power tools have been shown to lead to vibration-related health ailments associated with musculoskeletal disorders, motion sickness, heart conditions and poor balance.

Many Chinatown older adults live in low-income housing or attend senior centers located next to long-term construction sites and cannot avoid or escape the constant noise, disturbance, and discomfort created by construction work. This long-term exposure threatens their health and well-being. A 2019 report from the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health (CSAAH) noted that “older adults are at increased risk for noise pollution due to sensory changes that take place in the aging process.”

Li, a resident at Chung Pak’s senior housing, describes construction noise:

Li: The sound of Chinatown is the sound of 9/11. When it was 9/11, it was very noisy. I remember very clearly when I was working, I heard the sounds of the ambulance, firetruck, police cars, and many more. Wait, the sounds of ‘di di da da.’ I worked here for 10 years. That was the most terrifying time. Many people died. That time was really scary.
Interviewer: So you live here now. Is there a difference between Chinatown’s current sounds and sounds in the past?
Li: Now it is very noisy. So noisy that it is hard to sleep.
I: What sound is it?
Li: The sounds of making things on the other side. “bin bin pang pang” Very noisy.
I: You said across, right? Can you tell me what you mean by your side?
Li: Across, across from our complex when they are building the scaffolds. Even now they are still building.
I: Which street do you live on now?
Li: This is Baxter Street.

Here are a few well-known developments planned in the Chinatown area:

The Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) or the “Chinatown Mega-jail”

The City has proposed to close Rikers Island Correctional Facility and replace it with four new borough-based jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The plan for the Manhattan site proposes the demolition of both Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) towers located in Chinatown and building a 295-feet high jail in the same lot. Due to the complexities of taking apart an existing fortified jail site and erecting a new tower that is both larger and taller than the current building, construction is estimated to take over six years to complete. The current MDC, situated between Baxter and Centre Streets in Chinatown, also shares a wall with Chung Pak LDC, a low-income senior housing development, home to over 100 older adult residents.

MDC proposed mega jail
Two Bridges Megatowers

The southeastern edge of Manhattan is outlined by FDR Drive and South Street. It is difficult to miss the shiny glass tower of One Manhattan Square (252 South Street), a residential tower complex located in the Two Bridges/Chinatown neighborhood. Constructed from 2014 to 2019, the sky-scraping One Manhattan Square building tops out at 72 stories high. Four more waterfront apartment tower buildings, each estimated to be 70 to 100 stories high, are planned for the neighborhood, which is currently home to many low and middle-income families. The developer intends to cantilever (connect two buildings using a central beam or floor) a 77-story megatower over the Two Bridges Senior Apartments low-income senior housing center at 80 Rutgers Slip.

Developers' vision of the Two Bridges waterfront with four new mega-towers

Construction-Related Noise Abatement Strategies

What can be done to help reduce construction-created noise in a neighborhood like Chinatown? Here are just a few examples for mitigation or reduction of construction noise:

The information shared here may be useful for community leaders, New York City – and specifically Chinatown – residents, and anyone interested in finding out how sound and noise surround us and serve as part of the fabric of our lives. What sounds make up the sonic fabric where you live? Think: what are some sources of sound or noise that you have perhaps not noticed were there until they became bothersome or distracting to your day-to-day activities?