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Back You are here: Home Columns Columns John Pint Are you dreaming of a quiet New Year? New federal norms list decibel limits for noise

Are you dreaming of a quiet New Year? New federal norms list decibel limits for noise

In June 2013, hundreds of lakeside residents were kept awake for 22 hours when an electronic music festival featuring “incessant high-decibel noise” was held in Ajijic.

Excessive noise, especially from amplifiers turned up to their maximum output, has long been a problem even in the most isolated rural hideaway.  This I discovered the hard way, when I would drive or hike to some gorgeous spot in what I imagined was “remote wilderness.” We would make camp, soak up the beauty of the star-studded sky and, when night fell, crawl into our tents ready to be lulled asleep by the gurgling of a nearby brook, the hooting of owls and the chirping of crickets. But if we happened to be camping on a Saturday night, a few minutes later our sweet dreams would be cruelly shattered by the nerve-wracking thumping of drums, the ear-splitting blare of trumpets and the rowdy “ahuas” of hyped-up cantantes. From inside the tents, it sounded like a combination bacchanalia-saturnalia had descended upon our campground from out of the sky, but inevitably we’d discover that all the noise was coming from an innocent-looking ranch house two kilometers away, where the volume of the radio or amplifier had been turned up to Sonic-Boom level.

Although loud music and noise might seem part and parcel of the local tradition, Mexican federal lawmakers recently enacted ground-breaking legislation which gives ordinary people a chance to defend themselves from acoustic terrorism. The new rules went into effect on December 3 and represent the modification and updating of an official norm, entitled (in case you want to quote it to local authorities): NOM-081-SEMARNAT-1994 de la Ley General del Equilibrio Ecológico y la Protección al Ambiente; 8, fracciones III y IV del Reglamento Interior de la Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales.

In an eye-opening preamble, authors of this modification of the law first draw attention to a growing problem all over the world:

“The World Health Organization estimates that at least 120 million people in the world are suffering from hearing problems caused by the excessive noise to which they are exposed, especially in large cities.”

Next, they bring the problem home: “In 2012, the Fonoteca Nacional measured the sound levels at five different points in Mexico City and reported the noise limits exceeding those  recommended by the WHO.”

“It is,” they conclude, “convenient to set noise and zoning levels as recommended by the World Health Organization.”

Reading between the lines, we can see that Mexican authorities have finally woken up to the reality that things have gone too far for too long and noise pollution now poses a serious health problem. Accordingly, the new norms are strict enough that if they were enforced, Mexico would be as quiet as … I was going to say Switzerland, but no other country could be that quiet. The table above shows an English version of the new norms, which refer to fixed sources of noise such as homes and factories rather than mobile sources such as vehicles, leaf blowers, etc.

If you’ve ever gone to a wedding in Mexico, you’ll note that the sound of 1,000 electric drills doesn’t come close to the noise output of a typical band. Imagine a boda in which you could actually talk to people!

Of course you are now thinking, “They’ll never enforce such a nice law.”

You may be surprised. I was.

I live in the municipality of Zapopan, which has local laws just as tough as the new federal ones. Zapopan has a phone number you can call 24 hours a day to complain about noise (3818-2200, extension 3408 or 3342 and ask for Seguridad Pública). On several occasions when my wife or I have called them, they have sent a squad car all the way out to my remote community of Pinar de la Venta and the noisy offender was obliged to turn down the volume. I was told that you can supposedly get the same sort of results anywhere in the country by calling 066 (if you try it, I’d be interested to hear what happened).

The best way to know whether a neighbor’s party has passed the legal limits is to check the number of decibels with a sound level meter. The ones used by professionals can cost around 2,000 dollars but there are many apps you can download into your Smartphone, instantly turning it into a sound level meter. The best one I’ve found has the curious name SPLnFFT. Testing has shown it to be almost as accurate as the 2,000-dollar ones, but you can load it into an iPhone for only 49 pesos.

The most effective way I’ve found to deal with noisy radios and parties is simply to visit the offender and ask him or her (in the friendliest possible way) to turn down the volume control. Quite often I get a look of surprise: “What? And here I thought I was doing the neighborhood a favor!” In 90 percent of the cases, the noisemaker will turn down the sound, albeit reluctantly, and will probably also invite you to join the party.

As for the other ten percent, you can hand the “responsable de la fiesta” a copy of the new SEMARNAT norm update, which is only two pages long. To print it out, go to my website, and look for “NOISE.” If that doesn’t do it, you can always call 066 and to make a stronger case, you can even mention the number of decibels reported by your handy SPLnFFT.