United States initial legislation
In the 1960s and earlier, few people recognized that citizens might be entitled to be protected from adverse sound level exposure. Most concerted actions consisted of citizens groups organized to oppose a specific highway or airport, and occasionally a nuisance lawsuit would arise. Things in the United States changed rapidly with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969 and the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act, more commonly called the Noise Control Act (NCA), in 1972. Passage of the NCA was remarkable considering the lack of historic organized citizen concern. However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had testified before Congress that 30 million Americans are exposed to non-occupational noise high enough to cause hearing loss and 44 million Americans live in homes impacted by aircraft or highway noise.
NEPA requires all federally funded major actions to be analyzed for all physical environmental impacts including noise pollution, and the NCA directed the EPA to promulgate regulations for a host of noise emissions. Many city ordinances prohibit sound above a threshold intensity from trespassing over property line at night, typically between 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., and during the day restricts it to a higher sound level; however, enforcement is uneven. Many municipalities do not follow up on complaints. Even where a municipality has an enforcement office, it may only be willing to issue warnings, since taking offenders to court is expensive. A notable exception to this rule is the City of Portland, Oregon, which has instituted an aggressive protection for its citizens with fines reaching as high at $5000 per infraction, with the ability to cite a responsible noise violator multiple times in a single day.
Japan actually passed the first national noise control act, but its scope was much more limited than the U.S. law, addressing mainly workplace and construction noise.
Follow-up on initial U.S. laws
Initially these laws had a significant effect on thoughtful study of transportation programs and also federally funded housing programs in the United States. They also gave states and cities an impetus to consider environmental noise in their planning and zoning decisions, and led to a host of statutes below the federal level. Awareness of the need for noise control was rising. In fact, by 1973 a national poll of 60,000 U.S. residents found that sixty percent of people considered street noise to have a "disturbing, harmful or dangerous" impact.
This trend continued strongly throughout the 1970s in the U.S., with about half of the states and hundreds of cities passing substantive noise control laws. Noise regulation subsided sharply in 1981, when Congress ended funding for the NCA. EPA had pre-empted lower levels of government from regulating sources, so states could not legislate standards such as for truck noise emissions. Thus, in areas where the federal government had failed to promulgate clear standards (such as aircraft noise), no further progress could be made except by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has an inherent conflict of interest regarding noise regulation.
Nevertheless, some states continued to act. California carried out an ambitious plan to require its cities to establish a "Noise Element of the General Plan," which provides guidance for land planning decisions to minimize noise impacts on the public. Many cities throughout the U.S. also have noise ordinances, which specifies the allowable sound level that can cross property lines. These ordinances can be enforced with local police powers.
Europe and Asia
Several European countries emulated the U.S. national noise control law: Netherlands (1979), France (1985), Spain (1993), and Denmark (1994). In some cases unlegislated innovations have led to quieter products exceeding legal mandates (for example, hybrid vehicles or best available technology in washing machines). Environmental noise is a special definition in the European directive 2002/49/EC article 10.1.
The U.S. activities lag by 10 to 20 years behind most European countries. Russia, China and undeveloped countries lag even further behind.