When noise complaints fall on deaf ears – do you have rights?

You jolt awake to the sound of a slamming door. As your world comes into focus, you realise it’s been invaded by loud music and recreational howling from the punks next door.

You furiously jump up and peer through your window. It’s 2am and they’re laughing and drinking on their balcony – not even two meters away from your bed.

Dealing with noisy neighbours can be infuriating.

They may be intentionally disturbing you, like this pack of Sid Vicious wannabes. Or perhaps they’re equally powerless over the racket coming from their apartment, like the rookie couple who just brought home a screeching, new baby.

But either way, these ongoing interferences may eventually make your skin crawl and have you pulling at your hair.

Vandalising your ears? 

But can this perpetual noise damage your ears? According to dr Sharon Williams, an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), it’s unlikely.

“The harmful effects of noise exposure are mainly governed by the intensity or loudness of the sound, the frequency (high or low), and the duration of exposure,” she explains.

“To put it into perspective, conversational speech is measured as 60 decibels, a lawnmower is 90 decibels, a chainsaw or pneumatic drill is about 100 decibels, a rock concert or a car hooter about 115 – 120 decibels, and a gunshot about 140 -160 decibels,” she adds.

Dr Williams says that the intensity or loudness of a sound in decibel is a logarithmic function. In other words, it increases exponentially rather than gradually.

“With regards to perceived loudness, a 20-decibel increase will be perceived as 10 times the intensity of 0 decibels, and 40 decibels is 100 times as intense as 0 decibels,” says dr Williams.

Based on this, she points out that you will perceive a pneumatic drill (100 decibels) as 100 times louder than conversation speech (60 decibels).

Another factor that influences the sound is the distance from which it emanates. The sound is dissipated, particularly in an open environment. Therefore,  the loudness of a sound is reduced the further away you are from it.

“If you are close to the gunshot your hearing can potentially be damaged, whereas you would require more than 8 hours a day of constant exposure to a lawnmower (in close proximity) over a substantial period of time to show signs of hearing loss,” says dr Williams.

This means that, although you might feel like you’re losing your mind, the noise from your neighbour’s apartment won’t damage your ears.

Is the law on your side?

Health implications aside, a noise nuisance or disturbance can nonetheless interfere with your life and turn your home into a place of dread.

“When it comes to noisy neighbours that party until the early morning hours, there is a clear line of reporting to law enforcement with parties first and foremost having to distinguish between ‘disturbing noise’ and ‘noise nuisance’,” says COO Emile Gerber, spokesperson for Epoq Legal.

According to the City of Cape Town’s What is Noise Handbook, these terms are described as follows:

  • Noise Disturbance: This means a noise, excluding the unamplified human voice, which exceeds the rating level by 7 decibels and exceeds the residual noise level where the residual noise level is higher than the rating level. This also applies when the noise level exceeds the residual noise level by 3 decibels where the residual noise level is lower than the rating level. Often seen as an objective measurement.
  • Noise Nuisance: This means any sound, which disturbs or impairs or may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person. Often seen as a subjective measurement.

“Should you need to make a complaint, your first port of call is the local authorities who will visit the site and warn your neighbours about their behaviour,” says Gerber.

If the problem persists, you can report it online via your local municipality. Simply Google ‘noise disturbance’ and the name of your municipality to find the correct site and instructions on how to report it.

Gerber explains that once reported, the Environmental Health Department will measure the noise levels and, if classified as a noise disturbance in terms of the Environment Conservation Act 73 of 1989, it will take the matter further.

However, this would not automatically become a legal matter.

“Lawyers would only get involved should those first lines of action not have any effect on the behaviour of your neighbours – should their noise levels be negatively impacting your quality of life, be a threat to you or your family, or if there are damage claims to be made,” says Gerber.

“In terms of court action for noise complaints, you can apply for interdictory relief preventing your neighbour from causing a specific noise in future. Alternatively, you might sue your neighbour for damages suffered. In both cases you would need to prove and quantify the damages suffered, which may be difficult,” he says.

Gerber advises that the matter first be dealt with among neighbours through a civil, one-on-one conversation before remedial action is taken.

“Should your calls for remedy fall on deaf ears, then you have options available to you – whether through the courts or other enforcement avenues,” he concludes.

This article has been prepared for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, or a legal opinion. The practical application of the provisions of this article will vary depending on the facts of each case. The publication, author of the article and companies or individuals providing commentary cannot be held liable in any way.