85th Anniversary of the First International Noise policy
By Walter A. Montano, Tech Director, ARQUICUST Acoustic in situ Measurement Laboratory, Gualeguaychu, Argentina, and Member of the Committee on Archives and History of the ASA
The directions, written by acousticians and hygienists, given by the Committee on Noise and Housing (within the League of Nations) in June 1937, intended to protect health, are not well known in the 21st century. The meeting which took place in Geneva was the first of its kind and the outcome from the scientists and researchers involved was the pioneering work for global noise policies many years before the WHO existence. This article presents a summary of the discussion during that meeting and is intended as a contribution to the history of Acoustics and a tribute to the acousticians who took the first step for limits to noise levels 85 years ago.
Acousticians of the 21st century are accustomed to mentioning the reports issued on environmental noise by the WHO; from 1980 the first guidance with Environmental Health Criteria for Noise (WHO, 1980), to the most recent guidelines for the European Region (WHO, 2019). But it is less well known that there was a first attempt in 1937 to have an international reference of healthy noise levels inside dwellings but as a consequence of World War II could not be further discussed and was subsequently forgotten. This article first gives a brief history of how this meeting, in Geneva in 1937, came about and summarizes the report published by that group of experts who worked on the problem of noise in cities and people’s health. This summary has been extracted from the archive of the meeting, which contains over two thousand pages.
On December 9, 1907, the Office International d’Hygiene Publique (OIHP) was created to oversee international rules regarding the quarantining of ships and ports to prevent the spread of plague and cholera, among others public health conventions. On January 10, 1920, the League of Nations was founded with: “The idea of the League was grounded in the broad, international revulsion against the unprecedented destruction of the First World War and the contemporary understanding of its origins” (OHFSI, 2020), and the International Health Organization of the League of Nations (LNHO), was set up in 1923, inheriting the duties of OIHP and “was given a broad mandate under its constitution to promote the attainment of ‘the highest possible level of health’ by all peoples” (WHO, 1958) and this organization became the World Health Organization after World War II.
In 1929 the Italian Dr. Luigi Carozzi presented to the League of Nations a report on the harmfulness and control of noise in offices or factories about “the harmful effects of noise on human beings are complex and are not measurable by the mere intensity of the noise. Monotonous noise may do harm, he believes, by its deadening effect on the persons who work in it,” his report is the first of its kind presented internationally at the International Labour Office (ILO) for discussion (Montano, 2021).
In 1935 the LNHO started to work on housing issues, promoted by Charles Winslow from the US and Jacques Parisot from France, so the LNHO took a lead in promoting a Housing Committee to study the benefits of sunlight, warmth, water supply, sewage disposal, and reduction of smoke, noise, and vibration. It was not until 1937 that it began its work when on February 9 “The Committee decides to reappoint this Commission, which will consist of the representatives of the various national committees set up to study housing,” (LNHO, 1937−a), and seven people from different countries agreed to meet for working in three groups (heat, noise, lighting).
This article presents a summary of that international meeting in 1937, based on the documents available from the United Nations (UN) archives (that are public only under direct request), where noise problems were analyzed, and is dedicated to the memory of the pioneering work of a group of acousticians 85 years ago.
1. The Housing Committee meetings in 1937
According to the documents at UN archives, Dr. Grützmacher from Germany was sent the working drafts, unfortunately, he did not participate (LNHO, 1937−6, p.166). The Housing Committee started to work on February 1937 and considered that a special commission should meet the same year and “three groups of experts should be consulted on the following questions: air conditioning of the dwelling, campaign against noise and vibration in dwellings, sunshine and light conditions” (LNHO, 1937−b). Those involved in this committee were: Chair Jacques Parisot (France); Johan Axel Höjer (Sweeden); William Wilson Jameson (England); Herman Van der Kaa (The Nederlands); Brunon Antoni Nowakosky (Poland), Hynek Pelc (Czechoslovakia); C. E. A. Winslow (US). In the May meeting, they agreed to consult to a group of experts about the noise abatement (or “Lutte Contre le bruit”) and the definition of allowable noise levels in dwellings. They considered the levels should be based on experience gained in physiological and physical research institutes, that the methods for sound measurement should be identified and that the transmission and absorption of noise by building materials should be part of the study. Fig. 1 is a copy of the memorandum sent to the expert group on March 8th, 1937.
2. The arrangements for the official meeting.
It is important to note that in all letters and telegrams during the organization before the official meeting, it is referred to as “the forthcoming meeting on noise abatement.” So, it appears that the original spirit was of having an international noise abatement conference, in order to discuss this problem in cities. On May 10th, 1937, a Note on the Commission’s work (LNHO, 1937−a) mentioned all the fields to be discussed during the meeting and Fig. 2, including the specific matter about noise.
One interesting link between this 1937 summit and the year 2022, is that some of those invited to participate in the Noise and Housing meeting were in recovery following the worst influenza B epidemic (Wijdicks, 2020) and according to the Polish commission: “The other reports are not read, as you remember through the misunderstanding as to the financial help we started to work really in autumn 1936, later an epidemic of influenza disorganized our work. I myself am not quite healthy yet” (LNHO, 1937−d); the situation is similar for the 2022 Meetings after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Secretariat of the LNHO received all the documents and reports to translate into French and English and after that, they sent them back by mail to all participants. According to the internal communications, they organized some private reunions to adjust their ideas some days before the official meeting. It is important to note that the commissions from France and Sweden presented a discussion about the vibration problems in dwellings, but this issue was not included in the official draft nor in the memorandum (Aide-mémoire), so vibration was not discussed during the meeting. The reports on noise presented by the countries’ participants were (LNHO, 1937−e):
- The campaign against noise (Czechoslovakian Committee)
- Report of the Sub-Commission of the French Commission on noise and vibration control.
- Notes to the Draft Agenda on noise control in France.
- Reduction of noise in houses (Dutch Committee)
- Report on sound insulation (Swedish Committee)
- The fight against street noise in Poland, from the work of the Committee for the study of noise organized in Poland in 1934. Definition of limits of noise admissible in the habituated rooms (SIC).
With these reports and selected books on acoustics, the secretary Dr. Olsen wrote a Draft Report of 16 paragraphs to discuss during the meeting, and one memorandum (Aide-mémoire) titled “The anti-noise campaign,” both were delivered to all participants.
3. The Commission on Noise and Housing meeting The first workshop of the LNHO Housing Commission was held from June 23rd to 29th, 1937, in Geneva and an interdisciplinary group of experts in acoustics participated on the 28th and 29th. Fig. 3 shows the people who attended the general meeting on Noise and Housing:
The experts who worked on the documents included:
George William Clarkson Kaye (April 8th, 1880−April 16th, 1941): Superintendent, Physics Department, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, London.
Jacques Brillouin (1892−1971). Head of the acoustic services of the laboratories of building and public works in Paris. He wrote several books on acoustics being an important French acoustician and co-founder in 1932 of the Revue d’Acoustique Journal, and in 1948 of the Groupement des Acousticiens de Langue Française.
Robert L. Davison (?): As an architect, he was part of “The League of Less Noise” (LLN) formed in May 1934, the LLN did many anti-noise campaigns in New York City because this League was a continuation of the 1929 “Noise Abatement Council.”
Gunnar Heimbürger (September 19th, 1897−June 18th, 1968): Acoustical Architect and the first president of the Swedish Acoustical Society.
Wacław Żenczykowski (November 26th, 1897−February 18th, 1957): Structural engineer and member of the Poland Academic of Sciences. Eng. Fudakowski wrote the report on the Polish anti-noise campaign.
Cornelis Zwikker (August 19th, 1900–April 20th, 1985): Acoustician and one of the initiators of the Dutch Sound Foundation (association before Acoustical Society of the Netherlands).
M. R. L‘Hermite: (Not present) Deputy Director of the Building and Public Works Laboratories of the Ministry of National Education of France.
Henrik Kreüger (1882–1953): (Not present) Rector of the Royal School of Higher Technical Studies, Stockholm.
4. The most important issues presented on the Draft and the memorandum
The Draft makes clear that the noise problem is a matter of the condition of the dwellings, and there is no difference among countries: “In noise, we are faced with an environmental problem which has markedly increased in significance in recent years with the development of a mechanized civilization,” and “The nature of sound and noise is usually extremely complex, and their effects on the human organism depend on numerous physiological and psychological factors” (LNHO, 1937-b); the last statement is important because it defines the instruments to measure the noise level (the draft is referred as ‘power or energy’) or the noise loudness and refers to a noise meter specially modified to simulate the acoustic characteristics of the ear. Figure 4 refers to the common noise problems of the time which are not very different from those of today.
This was written by people from eight different countries, and it is obvious that radio noise was a global problem inside buildings. Modern loudspeakers were common from 1932, a date coinciding with the end of the great global economic depression, so a time when there became the opportunity to enjoy entertainment at home and there are hundreds of media articles from around the world about problems of loud radio noise (Montano, 2022).
4.1. Noise as a matter of public health
The concept of noise as a health problem, ie from a physiological viewpoint, was advanced in 1937 as demonstrated by the inclusion of hygienist doctors who were aware of the living conditions inside dwellings and the problems derived from a ‘mechanized civilization’: “It pointed out that the problems of hygiene, comfort, and fitness and health which arise in dwellings vary in degree rather than in kind from country to country in noise;” and all the commission agreed on “the present day buildings are for the most part deficient in adequate sound-insulating properties, owing to the methods of construction and the lightness and high conductivity of many of the materials” – this same text could be written in 2022!
4.2. The first intention for noise level limits and urban zoning
The Draft mentions that a range between 20 and 40 phons (decibels) is desirable inside dwellings, depending on the circumstances and the character of the noise, such as traffic and industrial noises, as well as noise within the building itself by neighbors. Figure 5 emphasizes the importance of careful town planning.
Regarding the maximum noise levels of horns, the Draft mentions the legislation of some countries tends to make the application of such measures compulsory. For example, in Germany the noise produced by a motor vehicle at a speed of 40 kilometers must not exceed 85 phons (decibels), and horns, 100 phons (decibels) at 7 meters; similar recommendations applied in Great Britain and the Netherlands in 1937.
4.3. The phenomena of sound waves propagation and the noise isolation
The group of experts pointed out that although the noise problem cannot be regarded as completely solved from the scientific point of view, practical results already achieved suggest certain principles which can be recommended for general application, because “certain differences of great practical significance exist between ‘air-borne’, ‘structure-borne’ and ‘impact’ noises;” They also were aware not only of the noise energy inside rooms which depend on its reverberation time but also the noise transmission by pipes through the building structure.
5. The discussion during the meeting
The provisional minutes of the first meeting on June 28th is in French only and some aspects of the discussion are summarized below.
Dr. Olsen (the secretary) and the experts tried to offer measurable standards expressed in decibels, and for noise absorption, the performance of the building materials depended on frequency. He also stated that it was difficult to relate the objective data from laboratory research, because these results revealed little about its subjective effect on people, in particular, what noise was considered annoying.
The meeting was only one year after the inception of the American tentative standards for sound level meters (ASA, 1936), so the concept of the term “loudness” was not yet widely understood, and French acousticians said that the word “loudness” does not have a direct translation into a French word, so they recommended continuing with the use of “loudness” in their language.
They also discussed the unit of measurement of noise, as some countries used the decibel and others the phone, and suggested “setting up a standard reference tone which consists of a pure tone of frequency 1000 cycles per second” at a sound pressure of 0.0002 dynes per sq. cm. But they agreed not to introduce metrology issues in the Report as in July of that same year an International Meeting of Acoustics would be held in Paris (see Montano, 2022).
In regard to honking noise, they all agreed on its prohibition during night hours, but the representative of France also suggested that daytime use could also be banned.
There was a suggestion to incorporate the measurement of reverberation time as an acoustic measurement method, in addition to those of isolation.
The experts had a long discussion about the importance of the composition of materials to reduce acoustic transmission through building elements, and that speech intelligibility should be considered in the noise level that would be recommended. They commented on the practical measures they use in each of their countries for acoustic treatment (carpets, insulation, acoustics ceiling, plaster, etc.) but that special parameters are required for hospitals; the latter was left to be addressed as an issue in the future meetings of the Commission.
As a result of the difference between field results and laboratory measurements, and that comparing the isolation curves of different countries was not possible, they discussed the need to reach an agreement so that all laboratories adapt their measurements to a common international parameter. Brillouin suggested measuring not only the sound level but also its frequency, which varies greatly depending on the construction materials, because “it is the same for the damping of the noise, it is enough that the frequency decreases without there being a modification of the energy so that the ‘loudness’ decreases much”.
Another point of discussion was the issue of double-glazed windows, which should be suitable for ventilation, thus they should not be fixed, and that their use requires a thermal study of the rooms. Other important points of conversation were that not all noises from the outside are important; in most situations, noises from inside the building or from adjacent ones can be more annoying than external noise.
A curious suggestion was made to reduce the problem of the high volume of radio sets, which was to ask the manufacturers of sound equipment to incorporate a power limiter, but it was discarded because, although it was interesting, it would be impossible to put into practice.
6. The final “Report on noise and housing”
The final document was published with the title “Report on noise and housing” in the Bulletin N° 4 of August 1937, Vol. VI pp. 541-550, (LNHO, 1937−g), and it includes the observations that took place during the discussion of the draft, and the final proposition (see Fig. 6) to consider a range of desirable sound levels between 20 and 40 phone:
The Report presents the following Plan for Future Studies (LNHO, 1937−g, p.546):
(a) Determination of acceptable noise levels in different types of erected buildings.
(b) Study of inexpensive and novel methods and materials, particularly lightweight, for nullifying the transmission of internal noises in buildings and reducing the entry of external noise. The question of durability and general properties of materials should also be studied in this connection.
(c) Comparing “mass curves” from different countries for partitions and translating, even if empirically, into “loudness ratios,” in the case of common noises—e.g., speech and music from loudspeakers.
(d) The association, of laboratory measurements with tests on floors and walls.
(e) Adoption of standard methods of testing floors and analysis of sound transmitted. The type of test blow needs further study.
(f) Comparison of methods of measuring absorption coefficients in different countries. The situation as regards hygienic requirements of absorptive materials should be studied.
To provide some possible practical measures “to safeguard the individual, the family and the community against the nuisance of harmful effects of noise,” a summary list of measures to reduce the annoyance produced by the noise “to indicate the palliative and preventive measures which may be taken in view of the present state of knowledge and experience in various countries.” The most important of these measures are briefly indicated under two titles: I) Measures involving minor expenditure, in 9 items. II) Measures involving appreciable expenditure by individuals or public authorities, in 15 items (LNHO, 1937−g).
The last paragraph of the Report is a call for help not only for the acousticians but also for the authorities (see Fig. 7).
It is hard to imagine the extent of organizing and preparation for that meeting in Geneva, especially as the Secretary first received the technical documents in different languages, translate them into French and English, and delivered them again to all participants by mail. Also, consider that the US expert had to cross the ocean by ship, and the rest traveled by train to Geneva for five days of discussion (in six different languages). This meeting was a remarkable effort for all the acousticians and administrators involved.
The documents and reports at the UN archives are important because they express the situation about noise problems until 1937 in eight different countries. Unfortunately, that work could not advance because of War World II, and all meetings after 1939 were deferred. The WHO was created in 1948, but it was not until the 70s that noise concerns were again put on the international agenda.
This article is an opportunity to divulge the first intention of having “desirable” international noise levels for dwellings in 1937, before the establishment of WHO. The final Report from the group of acousticians is not well-known but has become available on the Internet since 2020 (LNHO, 1937−g).
This article is a contribution to the history of the Acoustics of the 20th century and a tribute to the acousticians who participated in the first step of having an international healthy noise level 85 years ago.
The author wishes to thank Nikolay Prensilevich of the United Nations Archives in Geneva, to provide the original working documents; Marion Burgess for assisting with the English expression, and Eoin A. King and the Board of Noise/News International magazine for the opportunity to publish this article.
ASA (1936) American tentative standards for sound level meters for measurement of noise and other sounds. US, American Standards Association.
LNHO (1937−a). Report to the Council on the work of the twenty-fourth session of the Health Committee (Geneva, February 5th – 9th, 1937).
LNHO (1937−b). Report to the Council on the work of the twenty-fifth session of the Health Committee (Geneva, April 26th – 1st May 1937).
LNHO (1937−c). The monthly summary of the League of Nations. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.35387/2015.35387.The-Monthly-Summary-Of-The-League-Of-Nations-Volume-Xvii-No-1-January-1937_djvu.txt
LNHO (1937−d) R6124-8A-28261-Jacket1-20823. Housing Commission: Meetings of the Commission and of Expert groups to be held in 1937. Société des Nations League of Nations, Geneva.
LNHO (1937−e) R6125-8A-28261-Jacket2-20823. Housing Commission: Meetings of the Commission and of Expert groups to be held in 1937. Société des Nations League of Nations, Geneva.
LNHO (1937−f) R6126-8A-28261-Jacket3-20823. Housing Commission: Meetings of the Commission and of Expert groups to be held in 1937. Société des Nations League of Nations, Geneva.
LNHO (1937−g) III. Report on noise and housing. The hygiene of housing. Bulletin of the Health Organisation of the League of Nations Vol. VI, pp. 541−550, August 1937. https://digital.nls.uk/league-of-nations/archive/190500366#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=531&xywh=1738%2C874%2C2328%2C1725
Montano, W. A. (2021) Some history on hearing, workplace noise, and instrumentation. Noise/News International Magazine article, 2021-10-30. http://noisenewsinternational.net/some-history-on-hearing-workplace-noise-and-instrumentation/
Montano, W. A. (2022) Public concern and measurements of noise in the city. Noise/News International Journal article, 2022-01-14. http://noisenewsinternational.net/public-concern-and-measurements-of-noise-in-the-city/
OHFSI (2020). The League of Nations, 1920. Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute. United States Department of State. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/league
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