Public Health continues its goal of attaining societal omnipotence, this time through the ear drums.
In San Francisco the Department of Public Health has determined that urban noise is putting 1 in 6 residents at risk for heart disease, blood pressure and other illnesses caused by stress. The department hopes its rankings of neighborhoods listed by noise level will lead to more complex models that will highlight the problem and "shape building codes, land-use regulations and transportation policy." A member of the city’s Board of Supervisors is peddling legislation he hopes will lead to an ordinance that will give city officials (read Public Health bureaucrats) the tools to reduce overall noise levels. The tools could include building sound walls by freeways and curtailing operating hours of "noisy" businesses such as night clubs and restaurants.
Certainly, few can argue that reducing the noise level in a crowded city is an unworthy goal. It is important to understand, however, that the city of San Francisco reached its highest population in the years after World War II. It’s population now is slightly less but is growing slowly. No new freeway has been built through the city for well over 40 years. One freeway, in fact, was removed in the 1990’s. What then has changed in the past few years that leads Public Health now to advocate for new regulatory powers over the noise that is common to every urban area on earth?
The change is not so much the noise level but the balance of power between Public Health and all facets of the rest of the city. Public Health, once a useful and sometimes necessary component of modern life, now perches on the apex of urban power. No other city department, no governing body, no business interest nor the citizens themselves wield more power than does the San Francisco Department of Public Health. As an organization its primary goal is to enlarge itself and discovering new "health risks" is the surest path to growth. This situation is not unique to the city. From coast to coast Public Health reigns triumphant. Its budgets grow no matter the economic health of the city or state. It snaps its fingers and elected politicians are brought to heal like docile dogs. It conjures up new ailments and clubs the citizens into submission.
A decade ago, even in San Francisco, Public Health would have acted on noise levels, if it dared to at all, behind the scenes. Certainly one of its flacks would not be openly advocating the passage of laws and regulations to ameliorate a problem that its "researchers" had just discovered. Public advocacy would have been left to the people and their representatives in City Hall. The days of Public Health in the role of a wise and benign éminence grise are long over. L’état, c’est moi is the motto that now should appear over the doors of Public Health.