At what stage does loudness become noise, and who is to say when the clamour becomes a nuisance?
A little known fact is that the Environmental Protection Department has the final say on whether the consistent, bothersome sound next door is truly an irritant, or if it is an annoyance only because it is not music to the ears of those nearby.
“What may seem to be noise to me may not be noise to someone else,” EPD environmental technician Sheena McAllister noted recently while explaining that in responding to residents’ complaints, officers of the department visit the location with equipment to take specific readings and compare to precise standards of sound emissions, regardless of the source of the noise.
“What we do is a scientific assessment,” she said, explaining that the EPD uses standards taken from the World Health Organization’s community noise guidelines. “These are international standards that are backed by medical research.”
This information came to light last Thursday when the fellowship of the Cave Hill Wesleyan Church sat at their place of worship to discuss the topic, ‘Should the church be exempted from noise regulations?’.
Member of the fellowship, Patrick Harewood insisted: “The church still has to fall under some law of government as it relates to the law of the land, and if we try to separate ourselves from the laws . . . then another culture or group of people could argue the same thing.”
Noise emanating from fetes, karaoke, and even kites that are left in the sky day and night also came under the microscope during the discussion.
The moderator, Emmanuel Joseph, pressed a case for police undercover surveillance of the noise nuisance in Warrens, created by motorcyclists who take over the roads at night.
In spite of there being one member at the meeting who stoutly insisted that the church should be exempt, the discussion focused on whether sounds of worship emanating from churches across Barbados were annoying nearby residents.
Officer in charge at District ‘A’ Police Station, Inspector David Lewis, brought some relief to the gathering when he said that for his area, “no one has ever complained regarding the church music”, but he added that did not mean the church was above such scrutiny.
“No one is above the law . . . and if there is a complaint we would have to deal with it. If you all want to be exempted you may have to go Parliament,” he said.
McAllister explained that EPD actions against noise complaints are governed by a 2007 Cabinet-approved Noise Policy Paper.
“The church is not singled out in the document,” she said.
The EPD officer explained that the church ranks low among those against whom complaints are made, and said that all complaints are treated in the same manner, regardless of the source.
“Whether it is a church or some other kind of source – it could be a shop, a commercial entity with refrigeration equipment. It’s just the levels. We will investigate the sound levels coming from that source, and then compare it to the background level and then look at the standards for that class of area. If it is a residential area there will be a certain sound level that it should remain below. Depending on the area that you’re in, you would have different levels ascribed to you,” she explained, pointing out that “excessive noise has been related to increases in blood pressure; heart rate starts to increase; people get ulcers; children have difficulty learning…loss of hearing”.
Reverend Stephen Gittens, executive member of the Barbados Evangelical Association, noted that with its tendency towards “outward expression”, the evangelical church has been increasing its use of contemporary sound systems.
But, he insisted, “the church has always sought to lower the volume of its instruments if there were complaints from those residing in the neighbourhood. The activities of the church are an integral part of the Barbadian cultural, moral and spiritual landscape”.
Nonetheless, he said the role of the church does not give it licence to be above others.
“Members of the church cannot complain about karaoke if they themselves project volume that is beyond a particular hour. Remember, the church is supposed to be setting the standard of making peace and doing the right thing. So, if that neighbour has to call the police, or call the people from the [EPD] to run tests, that does not speak well of us,” the pastor said.
“If it can be proven that churches are making excessive noise, then they have to be spoken to; there is no getting around that.”