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The war on peace and quiet
A tagline of one of the EMA ads about noise pollution says: “Music is our culture, noise is not.” The truth seems to be the opposite.
A half-century ago, the Guardian’s editorial of August 20, 1962, opined that: “Judging by complaints which frequently reach this newspaper, many people in different parts of Trinidad are longing in vain for…silence for the space of half an hour.” Furthermore, the editorial continued: “The effect of constant din on the human nervous system has been recognised by reputable physicians, and the British government has appointed a committee to examine the results of noise on efficiency, health, and a civilised life.”
If the rising chorus of frustration over the noise issue in the letters pages and opinion columns in all daily newspapers over the last few weeks is an indication, things have not changed much. The noise complaints come from three sources: fetes during Carnival, perennial noise from bars and other residential noisemakers, and industrial noise.
Apart from the discomfort that excessive noise does, as the Guardian noted half-century ago, it can affect health, productivity, and quality of life.
Dr Natasa Bratt is one of two audiologists in the country, and she has seen thousands of people over the 15 years she’s been in practice. Of the local soundscape, she says: “Trinidad is an exceptionally loud place. I’ve been told by many Trinidadians they don’t like the quiet.” As to why this is so, she says, “I think they’re just accustomed to noise. They’re born in it, grew up in it, and maybe they think that’s the norm.”
But it is neither normal nor healthy. “The ear is not designed for excessive noise. It causes damage.”
The Environmental Management Agency’s (EMA) Web site (ema.co.tt) lists standards, acceptable noise levels, and the procedures for granting variations. For example, the acceptable continuous noise level in a general area is 80 dB in the day, and 65 dB in the night.
But despite these rules being in the law since 2001, the problem of noise has got worse, and no one seems to be aware of it, or have the desire to fix it. Even the question of how to seek redress from the authorities, or which arm of the State has the responsibility to intervene, is not clear.
The EMA’s FAQ directs those afflicted with noise harassment to the police, and even provides statutes under which offenders can be charged.
The relevant legislation includes, inter alia: the Police Service Act, Summary Offences Act, Public Holidays and Festivals Act, Theatres and Dancehalls Act and the Registration of Clubs Act.
This is theory. The practice is a little different. Several people interviewed for this article, including a government minister, medical professionals, police officers, and private citizens, agreed that the police and the EMA often do nothing, leaving citizens frustrated and helpless against noisemakers, industrial, commercial, or private.
The police, in fact, have been known to refer citizens to the EMA, which has a noise enforcement unit, and has begun running ads in the press to inform the public about a 24-hr noise hotline.
However, a Guardian story on January 26 reported a member of the public saying when they called the hotline, no one answered, though when the Guardian called, someone answered.
The EMA did not respond to several requests for an interview to respond to these and other complaints by members of the public of its ineffectiveness, or to provide research data on the noise issue.
ASP Joanne Archie, public affairs officer of the TTPS, citing statistics from the EMA, said in 2011, there were 103 complaints of noise from bars and 97 residential complaints, a total of 200. In 2012 complaints totalled 380. The noisiest division is Central. She had no statistics for reports made at stations or on how many complaints were responded to and their outcomes. She did say, however, that she was aware that some noise complaints had resulted in prosecutions, as well as the fact that some callers have been ignored by police, but had no supporting data or statistics.
Some citizens have elected to bring private matters against noisemakers in the magistrates’ courts, and in the absence of statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests routine frustration.
This series will continue tomorrow.
The Lange Park Residents Association (Lapratt) of Chaguanas is perhaps the first residents’ organisation to successfully challenge a fete promoter. They caused a licence to be denied for a chutney show at the Rise car park in Chaguanas three weeks ago.
The residents’ problems began with the opening of a bar, Rise, on the northern extremity of the community. At first, the establishment was a bar and grill, which the residents were, if anything, pleased to have in proximity. However, things changed quickly, according to president of Lapratt Nagib Shakeer: “From a quiet bar and lounge, it became a nightclub-karaoke kind of affair. From Thursdays to Saturdays, the crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk and car park.” And large speaker boxes appeared.
The residents had meetings with the Rise management, and were given assurances, but the noise levels inexorably crept back up.
The launch of a band, a full-blown Carnival fete in 2011, brought, according to Shakeer, “excessive noise, parking problems, and other violations of people’s enjoyment of property.” These included people “playing music from their cars, drinking in the street, and urinating on residents’ walls and using obscene language.”
When an all-inclusive was announced at the venue in 2012, the residents' association went to the Chaguanas Magistrates Court to lodge objections. However, the promoter was represented by legal counsel and they were not, and the magistrate told them they had no locus standi, and would not be heard. Approval was granted to the promoter, and the event went on.
The residents persevered. Over the course of the following year, they made, distributed and collated questionnaires for other residents to fill out regarding the noise levels and their discomfort. They kept records of events at the venue, and the levels of noise. They took photographs of parking patterns during events.
In 2013, Lapratt returned to court armed with empirical data, and represented by legal counsel, Cheryl Ann Steele (of Janet Peters’ chambers).
From a refusal to hear them in 2102, the same magistrate in 2013 made a site visit, and after hearing their arguments, ruled in the residents’ favour.
“My faith in the justice system is renewed,” said Lapratt member Robert Andrews. “But we had to do our homework.”
The proprietor of the Rise was not at the venue on the two occasions when the Guardian visited. However, the owner of the property, Prakash Ramkhelawan, who lives above the Rise, said he has complained to the management about the noise from the music systems of patrons’ cars in the car park. He agreed that it was “unfair” for the residents to have to put up with the noise.
How loud is too loud?
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (www.asha.org) provides a list of common noise-making activities, their decibel levels (dB) and their effects. A library is about 30 dB, a quiet room has a decibel level of 40 dB, a typical conversation is about 60 dB, a kitchen blender is rated as “very loud” at 80-90 dB, a chainsaw is “extremely loud” at 110 dB, and fireworks (at three feet) are described as “painfully loud” at 150 dB.
The effects of exposure to excessive noise,
says the ASHA Web site, include high blood pressure, abnormal heart rate, insomnia, irritability, developmental disruption in unborn babies, and learning disabilities in children.
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