UW professor: Seattle exposed to most 'chronically high noise levels' of any city in US

(Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

How Seattle’s development is impacting your health and, more specifically, your ears is not something being taken into account by city leaders, according to a University of Washington professor. And changing an ordinance that mutes construction’s noise pollution to match other cities from around the country might be a potent elixir, he says.

Dr. Eliot Brenowitz, a professor of psychology and biology at UW, co-authored a piece for Crosscut that says Seattle residents are "being exposed to some of the most chronically high noise levels from construction of any city in the nation." And while he is concerned, he told KIRO Radio's Jason and Burns that the title of the Crosscut piece "Seattle's construction noise is out of control — and deadly," is not what he had in mind.

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“Let me start off by saying the title was the choice of the editorial staff at Crosscut … I would not have chosen to be quite so alarmist about this,” he said, countering with the title “Seattle construction noise presents a health risk for residents of the city.”

Brenowitz says Seattle’s current ordinance allows noise-producing construction activity in non-commercial residential areas from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Noise levels in Seattle are not allowed to exceed 75 decibels, averaged over a one-hour period and measured 50 feet away. He said, as best as anybody in the Seattle Office of Noise Abatement or City Council staff can tell, this current ordinance was written back in the 1970s. What he’s calling for is a “reasonable updating of this ordinance.”

“For reasons that nobody seems able to explain if you look at the Seattle ordinance for mixed residential-commercial areas, the stop time is 7 p.m,” he said. “No one seems able to explain why it’s 10 p.m. for residential areas and 7 p.m. for areas where there are high-rises.”

Here is what Brenowitz and his co-author found about Seattle's noise ordinance compared to 33 other cities:

1. Of the cities we've examined across the country, only Seattle and Houston allow construction to continue as late as 10 p.m., on any day of the week. In most cities, construction must stop by 7 p.m. or earlier. This is generally a restriction on any after-hours construction activity.

2. Most cities do not allow construction on Sundays, and Saturday construction must stop by 6 p.m.

3. Only Seattle and San Diego measure averaged noise levels. Every other city on this chart with a noise limit uses a maximum level of 75-85 decibels produced by a single construction activity.

Brenowitz says he’s reached out to the noise abatement office and presented information to City Council member Mike O’Brien but hasn’t received feedback.

“All I’ve gotten out of the noise abatement office since then is silence, and maybe the only silence I’ve experienced in Seattle,” he said.

Brenowitz explained that there is “lots of evidence” that long-term exposure to loud sounds can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss. There is also a growing body of work, he says, that shows that long-term exposure to background news, even as low as 65 decibels can be harmful.

“That’s about the level of noise that you would hear if you were close to I-5,” he said. “That that can lead to high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke. Americans spend more than $20 billion a year for medications for hypertension. With construction going on next door to you, you can be a few yards away from a major construction site for months or years depending on how long it takes.”

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Jason Rantz, however, was hoping for more specifics from the study about people who have actually complained about the noise or the number of sufferers in Seattle. Brenowitz says that information hasn’t yet been collected.

“I don’t think there have been studies of this, per se, in Seattle, but I’ve measured my heart rate and blood pressure of my kids and my wife when we were experiencing a year-long construction project,” he said.

“Noise is noise, right?” Brenowitz asked. “It doesn’t matter whether noise is generated by somebody with a nail gun, a plane landing at Sea-Tac or somebody pressure washing your sidewalk. As far as your ears are concerned, it’s the same sound. From the point that noise hits your ears, there really isn’t any doubt in the medical community, that above certain levels, and the higher the level, the greater the risk, we know that the noise levels here are high and construction on a weekday can go 15 hours.”

Brenowitz wrote an article for The Seattle Times in August of 2015 that took a critical look at what developers are doing in certain neighborhoods. Rantz questioned whether the doctor has any ulterior motives for his noise complaints – that it's not about noise but being more onerous on developments to get work done. Brenowitz took offense to the claim.

“Even asking that situation suggests that we have to make a choice between public health and development and I view that as a false choice,” Brenowitz said. “We’re talking about the city perhaps revising the code so contractors wrap up their work two or three hours earlier. Do we really think that that’s gonna bring development in Seattle to a crashing halt?”

“I just wonder if the problem is being overstated and I say that as someone who actually lives in a neighborhood, much like yourself that’s dealing with a lot of the construction, it’s just never seemed to be as big of an issue,” Rantz responded. “And that’s why I question just a little bit of your motives, whether it’s conscious or not.”

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