A recent study of the psychological effects of noise found that, while a lawn mower was running nearby, people are less likely to help a passerby with a broken arm pick up a loan of dropped books.
Research here, in England and in Japan has revealed that birth defects, high blood pressure and admissions to mental hospitals are higher among people who live around airports.
In a school next to an elevated railway, students whose classrooms faced the track did significantly worse on reading tests than their peers, a study found.
A number of studies like this were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in testimony to Congress last week as evidence that noise is not just an annoyance and an occasional threat to hearing, but a serious general health problem whose full effects are still not understood.
Despite the evidence, however, the federal government's noise control program is seriously underfunded and hampered by bureaucratic infighting, according to witnesses at the Senate Environment Committee hearings.
"The country has failed to achieve the goals set out in the 1972 noise control law," said Sen. John Culver (D-Iowa) who presided over the Congress' first oversight hearings on the act EPA's $10 million a year program has been "poorly administered and irresponsibly conducted," he charged.
The act is up for renewal this year. Both Congress and the administration are proposing changes.
About 16 million people have impaired hearing because of noise and 13 million are exposed of health-endangering noise levels from cars, buses, trucks, airplanes, and construction equipment, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative agency.
Yet, "implementation of a unified, national effort to control noise has been slow and, in some cases, ineffective," Henry Eschwege, GAO's noise expert, testified.
Little progress has occurred in reducing aircraft noise - a particular problem in Washington and in urban areas across the country - because of the "adversary relationship" between EPA, which recommends regulations, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which has final authority, Eschwege said.
EPA assistant administrator David G. Hawkins said, "EPA has been totally frustrated." Despite 11 EPA proposals, the aviation agency "has chosen not to press the aircraft manufacturers," Hawkins said.
EPA wants new airplanes to incorporate the quietest noise equipment available but FAA says such stringent standards are not practical or economically feasible.
While Culver took FAA to task for "totally ignoring" EPA's recommending that EPA take full responsibility for aircraft noise - as advocated by the National League of Cities, and by a recent House Government Operations Committee report.
Such a move would be politically difficult, since FAA's powers are jealously guarded by the House and Senate Commerce committees.
However, Culver suggested that EPA seek some "clout" with the White House.
The lowa senator and GAO both criticized EPA for not issuing regulations faster. Noise officials spent years identifying the sources of noise - a task easily performed by a class of fifth graders, Culver said.
EPA has issued regulations for trucks and trains and proposed others for buses, motorcycles and garbage trucks. So far, enforcement has been almost nonexistent, agency officials said, because the law provides only for criminal penalties. The administration has asked that civil penalties be enacted.
Much of the blame for the slow progress was placed on a drastic decline in federal noise research from $54 million in 1973 to $28 million in 1977. Hawkins said stepped-up research is needed on the nonhearing effects of noise.
"There is a growing evidence of a link between noise and the development of high blood pressure and other heart and circulatory problems," he said. "A recent study found that children living and going to grade school under aircraft flight paths and higher blood pressure levels than children in a quieter community.
Studies in Japan, England and most recently in Los Angeles have also linked noise and birth defects. Around the Los Angeles airport, researches found a rate of 1,190 abnormal birth per 100,000 compared to 868 in other parts of the country.
Noise-produced stress affects family and work relationships and makes people generally antisocial.
Noise also interferes with children's learning. Hawkins said. In Inglewood, Calif., aircraft noise interferred so much with learning that new schools had to be built.
Despite such evidence, noise is "one of the most neglected of environmental issues," Culver said. Changes to the noise act are likely to include programs to encourage state and local governments to develop their own noise agencies, he added.