Noise Pollution in Westchester County

You moved here for some peace and quiet. Now, would your neighbor stop using that chain saw?



Ah, Westchester. People are lured here from around the nation—or, if they’re born here, often never stray very far—because of our county’s charms, including its reputation as a haven from the everyday hustle. Even residents who make their careers in Manhattan are willing to warm the seats on Metro-North each evening for a chance to return to our quiet, leafy corner of the world.

Well, except that with leaves come leaf blowers—one of which is blasting away in my neighbor’s yard even as I write this, though it’s 8 am on a Sunday. And then there’s the drone of aircraft. Caitlin Kelly of Tarrytown lives on the top floor of a building and is assaulted by noise from above. “A helicopter flies extremely low and right over us several times a day,” she complains. “It’s very loud and annoying.”

These nuisances are just the start of what can quickly degrade your average Westchester day—or night. From road traffic to rowdy restaurants, sirens to endlessly barking dogs, noise pollution may be one of our county’s most hush-hush secrets. And if you think it’s merely a pain in the neck, that’s simply not true: unfortunately, the effects of noise exposure can go much further. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do about it. Read on for some eye-opening facts—and ear-saving advice.

A shout-out to your health
You know that noise gets on your nerves. But that’s more than an expression: it can wear down your body. “Noise absolutely can impact health over time,” says Henri Roca, MD, medical director of Greenwich Hospital’s Integrative Medicine Program. The most obvious effect it may have is on your hearing. Noise exposure can lead to anything from tinnitus—a chronic ringing in your ears caused by damage to small cells within them—to actual hearing impairment as a result of further cell damage, as well as injury to the ears’ tendons and bones.

But those aren’t the only physical problems that can arise from noise exposure, Dr. Roca cautions. It’s inherently wearing to be bombarded with clatter. “We go through an internal process of interpreting the noise,” he explains. “We have to decide what the sound is associated with, and what it might or might not mean, and predict how long it may last.” You’re often rooting for the disturbance to be resolved, and, unfortunately, that’s not usually in your control. “Take a car alarm, for example,” Dr. Roca says. “It starts up, and you’re wondering what’s going on, where the owner is, and whether he will come turn it off. You’re focused on it.” 

What happens next largely depends on your personality. If you’re “field independent”—the psychological term for people who aren’t bugged by stuff like a picture hanging crooked or that one wiry hair on a well-coiffed head—chances are you’ll find a way to quit noticing the noise. But if you’re “field dependent,” which is to say that you tend to sweat the small stuff…well, that car alarm will continue to be alarming.

And when chronic noise becomes a constant stressor, big health problems can follow. “It’s been correlated with high blood pressure, hormonal and immune-system changes, heart pain, and even heart attacks,” Dr. Roca says. “While the noise itself may not be the direct cause, it probably leads to anxiety, which, in turn, leads to illness.” 

Auditory disturbances can blunt your intellect, too, warns Arline Bronzaft, PhD, who advises anti-noise groups internationally and helped to rewrite New York City’s noise code several years ago. In a groundbreaking study she conducted at P.S. 98 in Manhattan in 1975, she found that children in classrooms that faced noisy train tracks were nearly a year behind in reading proficiency compared to peers in quieter quarters. “We were able to convince the transit authority to put acoustical tiles in the ceiling and abate the noise,” she says. “A year later, the kids in those classrooms were reading at the same level as the others.”

Since then, Bronzaft has continued to advocate for more peace and quiet across the country. Locally, she’s helped Westchester residents with what’s probably our county’s leading noise issue:  aircraft traffic. “The one thing about planes is they’re equal-opportunity offenders,” she says. “Rich people get their noise just as much as poor.”

Plane annoying
Over in Harrison, John Inserra is on the receiving end of many calls from those equal-opportunity complainers. “Yes, unfortunately,” he answers, laughing, when asked if he’s the noise-abatement officer for Westchester County Airport. “I help develop the programs, policies, and procedures to try to mitigate the impact of our operations on Westchester and Fairfield.” He’s been at the job in some capacity for nearly 19 years (his office expanded in 2001 to become a full-fledged part of Westchester’s Environmental Department), and there’s been lots of improvement, he’s proud to say. “In November, I fielded just sixty-eight complaints for the month, out of more than thirteen-thousand take-offs and landings. Ten or fifteen years ago, we’d get hundreds of calls monthly.”

Still, Inserra admits, “It’s kind of difficult to satisfy everyone. Planes have to fly and land, and they have to make noise to do it. We’re intermediaries between the community, the airport users, and the operators, trying to find some middle ground by working with the FAA and the tower. But a lot of things are out of our hands—the airspace and flight paths are controlled by the air-traffic controllers and the FAA.”

Because flight patterns and traffic shift frequently, the types of complaints his office fields can vary over time. “Sometimes, it’s mostly two or three households; another year it could be helicopter-noise complaints,” he says. Inserra and his team try to address residents’ issues: “We’ll send a sample of complaints to the carrier, along with research as to what can be done. We may ask if they can change or alternate their route, or fly a little higher if possible.” Technological progress is helping as well: “People at NASA and Boeing are always reducing the noise signature from engines and improving aircraft design, so flights are quieter,” he notes.

Again, though, there are only so many options. Which is bad news for everyone, especially those who live closest by, notes Dr. Frederick J. Neumann, a psychiatrist at White Plains Hospital. “Studies have shown that people who live under flight paths have much higher rates of hospitalization for cardiovascular problems.” Why not have planes fly even higher then, if that would muffle the noise? “Above two thousand feet, it’s LaGuardia airspace, so we can’t go there,” Inserra points out. Nor can the airport ban red-eye flights. “People sometimes think we’re closed from eleven pm to seven am, but it’s not true, though we do encourage people not to operate during those hours,” he says. Still, 311 flights occurred during those hours in October alone—in case you were wondering what woke you up in the dead of night.

Or rattles you during the day. Shyno Chacko Pandeya, of New Rochelle, owns and operates Santhigram Wellness Center in White Plains, an ayurvedic wellness center where clients expect a calm settling. “Lately, though, we’ve been getting low-flying planes that shake the whole building.” Pandeya says. “Something needs to be done about this.”

Sound advice
Something needs to be done, actually, whenever excess noise of any sort interferes with your quality of life. So what’s a Westchester resident to do when someone or something pumps up the volume too loud?

Learn your local laws, advises Bronzaft. Generally, noise ordinances cover everything from nuisance animals (say, a dog that barks for longer than 30 minutes) to the use of outdoor construction equipment. Don’t be afraid to call the police and complain about violations. For aircraft noise, call the airport’s Noise Complaint Hotline at (914) 939-8484, or visit airport.westchestergov.com to fill out a complaint form online.

Make helpful changes at home. There are lots of ways to insulate your house from both outdoor sound and room-to-room noise. Bronzaft recommends visiting the Owens Corning website (owenscorning.com) and choosing “make my home quieter” from the drop-down menu. You’ll get some basic info on sound-muffling insulation, ceiling fabrics, caulking, and more.

Soundproof your psyche. Master a stress-reduction technique that works for you, whether that’s meditation, biofeedback, or yoga. “You’re seeking that place of inner calm that is independent of your external environment,” Dr. Roca says. “When you’re good at finding that place inside you, even huge noise can be going on around you and you will not be aware of it.”

Sound out your politicians. Westchester Airport’s Inserra admits he pays attention when he’s contacted by your local congressperson on your behalf.

Talk to your transit system. Metro-North is rolling out new “quiet cars” where cellphone use is banned on certain routes (New Haven’s the latest). Make sure to let your carrier know about changes you’d like.

Above all, don’t just sit and suffer. You’ve actually got federal law on your side, Bronzaft points out: the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1972 states that the public has a right to an environment free of damaging and disturbing noise. So take steps to ensure you can enjoy your home and your life—unplugged.

Writer Deborah Skolnik, of Scarsdale, conducted an interview for this story while her daughter played a trumpet behind her. 

The Buzz on (and in) our Towns

When it comes to local noise, not all towns are created equal. Westchester Magazine dispatched testers around the county to measure their average noise levels during non-rush-hour times.
Using standard volume scales, our testers’ meters measured in decibels (dB), with a weighting of frequencies (dB-A) that better reflects how we hear. Their findings?

Our always-quiet zones are Elmsford, Valhalla, and Bedford. Mount Vernon, Harrison, Rye, and Port Chester are, on average, quiet, but at times can get loud. Most bustling of all are White Plains (the loudest), Tarrytown, and Yorktown. Other areas fall elsewhere along the spectrum. One myth the field study busted: municipalities don’t get more muffled as we move northward, nor is population density a predictor of noise level (though cities tend to have higher peaks). What makes the biggest impact is whether you’re in a downtown locale, so go have your dinner there, but consider living more on the outskirts.

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