Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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How to treat people with disabilities, visible and invisible

Photo credit: Anas Aldyab from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Having tinnitus and hyperacusis has made me more aware of what it’s like to have a disability. I am fortunate that my symptoms are mild and not life-limiting, but noise does bother me. When my wife asks for a quiet table at a restaurant, “because my husband has issues with noise” or “because noise bothers my husband,” I feel embarrassed and different. That gives me a very small insight into how difficult life can be for those with serious disabilities.

This piece by David Pogue in the New York Times discusses what different-looking people would like us to know before we stare. The bottom line, it seems, is that except for children it’s not okay to make comments about someone’s disability. It is okay if it appears that someone needs help to ask, “May I help you? If so, what can I do to help?”

Reading the article made me think about what those of us who have invisible disabilities, including auditory disorders like hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, as well as disorders like PTSD or autism spectrum disorder, might like others to know.

For those of us with tinnitus and hyperacusis, I think we would like people to know that noise bothers us. It makes our symptoms worse, and can be downright painful.

For those with hearing loss, we need low ambient noise levels to be able to understand speech. Please look at us when you speak with us. Adequate lighting helps those who lip read understand what is being said. Speak slowly and distinctly, but don’t shout. That doesn’t help us understand what you are trying to say, and it can also be painful.

For those with PTSD and other psychological or psychiatric or developmental disorders, and indeed for anyone with a disability and actually for everyone, with or without a disability, just be gentle and kind.

And the world will be a better place for all.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Looking for a quiet space? Here are some worth visiting

Photo credit: Lukas Hartmann from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If you’ve been looking for a truly quiet space to visit, consider Green Bank, West Virginia, where there’s no WiFi, no cellphone service, no microwave ovens or any other device that generates electromagnetic signals. Known as a National Radio Quiet Zone, it consists of 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain set aside to protect the Green Bank Observatory, a cluster of radio telescopes.

Have you heard about International Dark Sky Places? The first one in the U.S. is a 1400-square-mile spot in Central Idaho where there’s no artificial light. According to this author, “[t]here are currently 37 official dark sky parks in the United States, 53 in the world. There are only 11 dark sky reserves – which have a larger size requirement than parks – and none of them are in the U.S.”

You might also want to put the Hoh Rain Forest on your travel schedule. It’s known as one of “the quietest places on earth” thanks to Gordon Hempton’s work there.

In fact, “acoustic ecology” is an emerging field, so if you’re interested in “eco-tourism” you’re among a growing group of people who seek out quiet places around the world.

But as the author of the New York Times piece on Green Bank notes, “[t]o experience the deepest solitude, you need to enter the land where the internet ends.”

A few years ago, I worked with others to help turn George Prochnik’s 2011 book “In Pursuit of Silence” into a feature-length documentary film of the same name. What we learned in the process is how scarce truly “quiet zones” have become, despite the National Park Service’s efforts to preserve them.

So hurry up! Plan a few trips before these “Quiet Zones” disappear!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Why boomers hate restaurants targeting millennials

Photo credit: Evonics from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Baby boomers, those of us born between 1946 and 1964 and, therefore, now 55 to 73 years old, hate noisy restaurants. As this article by Sara Zeff Geber in Forbes notes, we remember when restaurants were quiet enough to enjoy both the food and the conversation. That’s rarely possible now.

As Geber notes, changes in restaurant design, and a belief that a noisy restaurant is a trendy hip one, make it difficult if not impossible to find quiet restaurants in most American cities.

More people lead busy lives and have more disposable income, so restaurants are busier than ever and restaurateurs see no need to change what they are doing.

But restaurant noise is a disability rights issue for those with hearing loss and other auditory disorders. And noise levels in many restaurants and bars are high enough to cause hearing loss.

It’s clear that market forces won’t solve the problem of restaurant noise. So what can we do? If enough people complain to enough elected officials, someone somewhere will take action to require quieter restaurants.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Research finds dangerous noise levels on London’s Tube

Photo credit: Leon Warnking from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The British government has paid much more attention to noise pollution than we here in the U.S., but the well-researched data in this article in the Economist clearly demonstrates that free market economics have not been kind to London’s Tube riders.

While the data show that a subway ride in London is somewhat less noisy than a similar ride in New York City, the noise exposure levels in London are still sufficient to cause permanent hearing damage.

What this article demonstrates is that, just like the decades-old problems with smog and second-hand smoke around the world, eradication can take a long, long time—even after powerful public health officials have recognized the seriousness of the problem.

All the more reason why people everywhere need to purchase and carry good hearing protection at all times—whether earplugs or earmuffs or noise-cancelling headphones.

Preventing hearing loss is the only solution, because there are no effective treatments, remedies, or cures–once your hearing is gone, nothing can be done.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Do-it-yourself noise mitigation at home

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I don’t generally mention commercial products in my blog posts, but I’m willing to make an exception for these sound absorbing panels from IKEA.

The article is from a UK magazine, so I don’t know if the panels are available in the U.S. yet, but it’s worth it to keep an eye out for them.  They can be hung in a room, or as a room divider, to absorb unwanted sound. And since the product if offered through IKEA, the cost shouldn’t be prohibitive.

Alternatively, heavy drapes might be a more aesthetically pleasing solution. And new urban construction often has–and should be required to have–double paned windows and sound absorbing material in the exterior walls.

So urban dwellers trying to get a good night’s sleep have noise mitigation options. But I can’t help but think about how much better our sleep could be if government actively enforced  noise regulations rather than leave the problem for each of us to deal with individually.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Why the FAA Reauthorization Act has not fixed airport noise

Burbank, California is a case in point that the FAA Reauthorization Act, signed by Trump in October 2018, hasn’t solved the airport noise problem.

Photo credit: Elizabeth K. Joseph licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Five years ago, 36 members of Congress, together with 36 community groups across the U.S., organized the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the National Quiet Skies Coalition to focus Congress on the Federal Aviation Administration’s flawed launch of NextGen, a program that has plagued communities with excessive noise and pollution—including Burbank, California.

This was a consequence of the Senate’s impatience about the stalled launch of NextGen. The transportation committee demanded to know why this program was stalled. The FAA complained that they were “slowed down by the requirement that we do neighborhood environmental impact studies.” To accelerate this program, Congress said STOP doing the studies; don’t collect complaints.

Burbank is one example of dozens of communities across the U.S. whose residents endure the aftermath. Other American cities affected include Washington DC, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco and many others. Most are represented on the Caucus.

NextGen was a good idea. Simply put, it aims to direct flights via satellite navigation, so air traffic will be more efficient and more airplanes will be able to use the same airspace, increasing safety, capacity and fuel efficiency. But Congress gave the FAA permission to ignore neighborhoods beneath the new, more tightly-controlled flight paths. Their lives have been seriously affected. For example, in Burbank, the flight paths changed from being over a freeway to being over neighborhoods—disrupting the lives of the people who live beneath the new flight paths. A new task force is being formed in Burbank to address the issue.

What should they do? Contact Congressman Adam Schiff and the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus. Why? In October 2018, Schiff and the other members of that group trumpeted their “success” in getting the FAA to address community noise complaints by inserting specific changes in the “FAA Reauthorization Act” signed into law by president Trump. But those changes haven’t fixed the problem. So Burbank’s citizens need to take this problem back to Congress.

Warning: the “FAA Re-Authorization Act” also authorized dramatic expansions of the use of drones—so if you see a pizza being noisily delivered by drone to your neighbor’s door, blame the members of Congress who let this happen.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Refuge from noise for autistic kids and adults

Photo credit: John Marino has dedicated this photo to the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

America is awakening to the special needs of kids and adults on the autism spectrum. Many are hyper-reactive to environmental noise.

A few shopping centers have introduced “quiet hours” specifically aimed at families with autistic children. Now a few airports are getting the message too.

For example, Lonely Planet reports that Pittsburgh International Airport has opened a 500 square foot “sensory room” called Presley’s Place where traveling families with autistic members can calm down and get ready to fly or de-compress after landing.

For some of us, finding a quiet place is a quest, something we simply enjoy. But for others, it’s an essential need! Let’s hope other airports get the message soon.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Rich foreigners causing noise issues in London

Photo credit: Adrian Dorobantu from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

A recent article discuss vehicle noise in London.

Apparently, very wealthy foreigners come to London with their Lamborghinis and other sports cars, which they then race up and down the narrow streets, causing noise problems and accidents.

£1000 fines don’t seem to deter them. So London is going to try new technology, acoustic cameras, which record the sound level and the vehicle license plate.  And, one hopes, put an end to this appalling ritual.

That sounds like a good idea to us.

Maybe this technology can be imported here.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Noise in hospitals? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is listening

Photo credit: Sara Star NS licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

For those of us who’ve been working for decades on the tough problem of noise in hospitals—specifically the effects of that noise on patients, physicians, families, and staff—news that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the work of popular podcast 99% Invisible’s inquiry into this problem begets mixed emotions. Finally, major foundations are listening!

Believe me, we welcome their interest! What better place to study the effects of noise on human health than in hospitals? If any professional group is able to carefully examine health effects and tease apart causality, shouldn’t it be medical professionals, both clinicians and researchers?

My colleagues and I have been enthusiastic about working with hospital staffs on noise and health for 18 years now. But frankly, it’s been extremely difficult to find foundations and government agencies willing to fund this kind of trans-disciplinary work. Why? Because it’s expensive and hard to assemble a team of researchers drawn from several different disciplines like medicine and acoustical science–the two groups barely speak the same language. But one of our proudest efforts did just that, the so-called Harvard Sleep Study, and it has become important because of its rarity.

That study, which began in 2006 and was published in 2012, discovered and described something we all know intuitively: that individual sounds, like musical notes, or alarm noises, or mechanical equipment or passing aircraft, are very different from each other and can’t be described with a single metric like the decibel rating. Indeed, the ability of a particular noise to arouse you from sleep depends more on the characteristics of that sound, rather than it’s decibel rating.

The decibel rating scheme records only sound-energy levels—that’s the energy that can physically harm your ears and your auditory system. But the decibel rating scheme does not, and indeed cannot, account for other noise effects such as a stress reaction, which can lead to cardiovascular problems or annoyance.  For example, a neighbor’s barking dog, a passing aircraft, or someone using a leaf blower near your house may be very annoying and may even disrupt your sleep, but is it loud enough to harm your hearing?

So it should come as no surprise that there is an alternative approach to measuring the many effects of noise. This alternative approach, called psychoacoustics, has been around nearly as long as the decibel rating scheme, but while it’s been embraced outside the U.S., it has had virtually no effect in this country. Psychoacoustics, also called supplemental metrics, emerged in the U.S. seven decades ago, but then emigrated to the European Unon. The classic work in this field is called “Psychoacoustics” by Fastl and Zwicker.

In the U.S., work on psychoacoustics had virtually no effect on the field of noise control until last year, when Congress included a requirement in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act that the Department of Transportation and the FAA begin using alternative metrics in their evaluations of the effects of noise on people in neighborhoods under airport flight paths.

If you’ve installed a free sound meter app on your smartphone, all you can measure is decibels (dB). At best you might be able to measure decibels with different weightings, e.g., dBA, dBB and dBC (the A, B and C versions adjust the dB scale to approximate human hearing or other dimensions of sound). But if you own a professional sound level meter, you can probably choose either one of the decibel scales, or an alternative called Sone. Do decibels and Sone measure the same things? in a word, no. Psychoacoustics measurements account for a variety of different aspects of sounds well beyond sound pressure levels.

The difference is as great, for example, as using a thermometer to take your body temperature versus using standard instruments to collect all of your vital signs and take a sample of your blood. That thermometer that takes your body temperature is a single indicator. The rest of your vital signs are something else entirely.

It’s exciting that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a podcast that considers metrics beyond decibels and considers some of the other vital signs that determine how the hospital soundscape affects patients and staff. Curiously, the researchers cited in this podcast don’t appear to be aware that there is already a well-defined, long-established set of metrics for doing so. One hopes they are not wasting time—and a foundation’s money–“reinventing the wheel,” ignoring the methods developed over many decades in the field of psychoacoustics.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Quieter motorcycles are on their way

Photo credit: big-ashb licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

After last week’s fiasco in Manhattan, where tourists raced out of Times Square when they mistook a motorcycle backfiring for gunfire, it’s good to hear the era of loud motorcycles may  finally be coming to an end. After all, motorcycles with exhaust noise violating federal and state noise standards are the bane of many urban and rural dwellers.

Quieter motorcycles are possible, and there have been efforts to design motorcycles that leave a smaller carbon–and noise–footprint. Well, they are finally here: Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers are introducing quiet electric-powered motorcycles.

We hope these become a preferred mode of transport soon.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.