Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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COVID-19 and the city soundscape

Photo credit: Craig Adderley from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, and David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD, wrote a very nice essay about COVID-19 and the city soundscape, which was published in New York City’s Our Town, the local paper for the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is known and published worldwide for her expertise and teaching on community noise. But noise is personal too, a cause. So she’s never lost sight of it’s impact on her own home town, New York City, where she has been an adviser to five mayors. Nor the effect it has on her own neighbors on the upper east side of Manhattan, even during the recent COVID lockdown that brought life to a standstill an an eery quiet punctuated only by the frightening sounds of ambulance and police sirens at any hour of the day or night.

In her essay, Dr. Bronzaft notes that sound and noise received a great deal of attention during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. In the absence of the usual hustle and bustle of noisy New York City, she writes:

There was talk about hearing and seeing more birds; not being awakened by overhead jets in the early morning hours; not being subjected to loud construction noises; and no music from nearby bars. However, an increase in loud ambulance sirens disturbed our ears and upset our minds because this meant more people were likely suffering from COVID-19.

She goes on to discuss possible future outcomes as urban activities return to normal, and expresses the hope that everyone–including city officials–will remember, when normality returns, what this period of calm and quiet was like.

Dr. Bronzaft’s piece dovetails very nicely with an editorial by Dr. Antonella Radicchi in a special issue of Cities & Health about sound and the healthy city.

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.

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.

Sound and the healthy city

Image © Marcus Grant 2018

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This wonderful and thought-provoking editorial from Antonella Radicchi and colleagues appears in the special issue of Cities & Health about sound and the healthy city. Dr. Radicchi was the lead guest editor for this issue and the Quiet Coalition acts as special issue partner.

One of the many things I was reminded of reading the editorial is that although urban noise has serious and well-recognized health consequences, a broader perspective on the urban soundscape is needed.

Perhaps my single-minded focus on decibel levels is misplaced? After all, I like the sounds of birdsong or fountains or many street entertainers just as much as anyone else.

As Dr. Radicchi and her colleagues write:

We hope that through a soundscape approach we can encourage fresh thinking about urban sound, including how people perceive and relate to their sonic environments, and show how sound can contribute to health. We believe that this approach can provide a collaborative platform for sound artists, sound technologists, urbanists and local people to work together with public health and create healthier urban environments.

They certainly encouraged some fresh thinking and self reflection for me!

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.

Community to vote on noise control cost

Photo credit: Andy Nystrom licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Jan L. Mayes, MSc, Audiologist

What happens when citizens want highway noise control but the financial cost is high? The Canadian community of Beaconsfield, Quebec is facing skyrocketing noise control estimates for a long awaited concrete sound barrier. Since the need was identified in 2010, cost estimates have risen from $25.5 million to $46 million putting the entire project at risk.

Beaconsfield’s sound energy is above World Health Organization noise limits recommended to prevent health damage in pregnant women, newborns to teens, elders, and other groups-at-risk. This doesn’t mean the noise control budget should be unlimited. But a $46 million sound barrier may not be the only solution. Modern options include different sound barrier designs, lower speed limits, quiet asphalt, and greenscaping between residences and the highway. There are new technology sound barriers designed to cut noise and chemical air pollution that are as effective as other barrier styles, and might be less expensive.

While there is no doubt this highway noise is a public health risk, authorities have decided to let community members vote on whether to pay for noise control or not. This will pit resident against resident, leaving the outcome in the control of many people who don’t live near the highway.

If this was a contaminated water supply, there would be no vote on whether to pay what is needed to protect public health. Unfortunately, noise isn’t treated with the same seriousness even though exposure is linked to communication breakdowns, reading delays, and increased risk of impaired health like anxiety, depression, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hearing loss, and dementia.

One of the root causes of this Canadian noise control problem is lack of community planning. Highways and infrastructure were built and expanded too close to homes, schools, playgrounds, and parks. Now there is a $46 million price tag to fix the problem.

In the U.S., the Quiet Community Act of 2019 would include limiting vehicle source noise emissions and better infrastructure planning to prevent community noise. This Act needs senate funding at a cost of $21 million a year. Experts estimate for every $1 spent on noise control, there will be an estimated $1.29 in future savings by eliminating preventable diseases and other adverse social effects of noise.

When it comes time to vote, one hopes the community in Quebec will vote so everyone has equal health protection from harmful noise no matter where they live. When it comes time to vote in the U.S., one hopes citizens will vote for senators who support funding the Quiet Community Act. Prevention will improve public health equality and cost less than noise control after the fact.

Jan L. Mayes is an international Eric Hoffer Award winning author in Non-Fiction Health. She is also a blogger and newly retired audiologist still specializing in noise, tinnitus-hyperacusis, and hearing health education. You can read more of Jan’s work at her site, www.janlmayes.com.

 

Lockdown reduced noise exposure across the U.S.

Photo credit: fancycrave1 from Pixabay

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some months ago we wrote about Apple’s new sound monitoring features on the iWatch, and the fact that Prof. Richard Neitzel at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health was working with Apple to analyze data collected by iWatch wearers. The first report from Prof. Neitzel’s work has now appeared in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

As discussed by Fermin Koop, ZME Science, half a million daily noise readings from volunteers in Florida, California, New York, and Texas were analyzed, starting before the COVID-19 lockdowns and continuing into the lockdown period. The data showed that initial decreases in noise exposure occurred on the weekends, but as people started working from home these extended into the entire week. Average daily noise exposures dropped by about 3 decibels.

This doesn’t sound like very much, but the decibel scale is a logarithmic one like the Richter Scale for earthquakes, and a 3 decibel decrease represents approximately a halving of the noise energy level that the volunteer data collectors were exposed to.

Koop writes that the study is one of the first ones to collect data over time in order to understand how everyday sound exposure can impact hearing. The data will now be shared with the World Health Organization and will help describe what personal sound exposures are like for Americans across different states and different ages.

“These are questions we’ve had for years and now we’re starting to have data that will allow us to answer them,” Neitzel said in a statement. “We’re thankful to the participants who contributed unprecedented amounts of data. This is data that never existed or was even possible before.”

Prof. Neitzel’s previous work found high levels of noise exposure for those living in New York City.  And a review article by Prof. Neitzel and colleagues discussed the auditory and non-auditory health consequences of excessive noise exposure, including high blood pressure.

Thanks to Prof. Neitzel and Apple for making this important citizen-science contribution possible.

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.

Birds changed their tune during the Covid lockdown

Photo credit: Paul Knittel from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In several blogs I have written recently, I commented that the pandemic’s effect on the soundscape did not just impact humans but other species as well, e.g. birds, whales. A recent article on a study of birds in San Francisco found that birds started singing differently during the silence of the COVID-19 Lockdown, noting that male white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco have begun to sing more softly and with an improved vocal range. The article says this change in singing may make them “sexier to females.”

The article cites a paper that has studied how animals, including whales and birds, have changed their behaviors during the pandemic shutdown. Before the pandemic, cities characterized by loud noises, especially from traffic, forced birds to sing louder to be heard by other birds. The authors reached this finding by comparing birdsong data collected previous years at the same sites they collected data during April and May 2020. Their data allowed them to conclude that birds “can adapt to changing environments.”

Erik Stokstad, writing for Science, states that birdsong “recaptured its former glory,” referring to the white-crowned sparrows of San Francisco. He adds that when birds sing louder in noisy environments the stress created “can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms.” With the noise also preventing birds from hearing their own chicks, there is the possibility that bird diversity is less in many cities. Furthermore, by demonstrating that some birds can adjust their songs to their environment, it might be that birds who could not adjust, and as a result left noisier cities, might return to places that are now quieter. But the quieter time of the pandemic has passed as cities have been returning to noisier times. Thus, the birds that have quieted down will very likely have to increase the volume of their songs. Also, may I add, that it is unlikely the birds who left will return.

Stokstad interviewed Elizabeth Danberry and her behavioral ecologists who have studied white-crowned sparrows in and around San Francisco for more than twenty years. Their research has clearly demonstrated the impact of noise pollution on the health and well-being of these sparrows. Similarly, long standing research has also clearly found that noise is hazardous to human hearing, health, and well-being. So I ask, how much more research do we need linking noise to adverse effects on humans and other species before we begin to lower decibel level in our environment?

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

High noise levels are dangerous for more than your ears

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I have written about high ambient noise levels as a disability rights issue for those with auditory disorders, and I’ve also noted that ambient noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause hearing loss. A fascinating article by in The Atlantic also suggests that high ambient noise levels are a risk factor for COVID-19 transmission.

interviewed Muge Cervik, a lecturer in infectious disease at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a co-author of an extensive review of Covid-19 transmission conditions, who noted that what makes controlling COVID different from controlling an influenza outbreak is that transmission is more random–a few people infect a lot of others, in clusters of infection, while most infected people don’t infect anyone else. And loud talking is a risk factor for super-spreading of COVID-19. writes that Cervik told her that:

In study after study, we see that super-spreading clusters of COVID-19 almost overwhelmingly occur in poorly ventilated, indoor environments where many people congregate over time—weddings, churches, choirs, gyms, funerals, restaurants, and such—especially when there is loud talking or singing without masks. For super-spreading events to occur, multiple things have to be happening at the same time, and the risk is not equal in every setting and activity….

If ambient noise levels exceed about 75 A-weighted decibels*, people have to talk more loudly to be heard.  And often they may move closer together than the usual 3-4 foot social distance to a more intimate 1-2 foot distance. Of course, 3-4 feet is already less than the 6 foot safe social distance recommended for reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Noise Curmudgeon, a Canadian blogger who writes about noise, noted that Toronto offered the following guidance for bars and restaurants:

It is advised to keep the volume of music, either live or recorded, at a reasonable level-one that does not cause customers to raise their voices or shout, thereby possibly increasing the risk of transmitting the virus.

He went on to write:

And there you have it – turn that background music down so I don’t risk spreading or getting the corona virus! Now we have clear permission make the request without feeling like we are messing up other peoples’ background music. Perhaps if this virus continues for very long, low or no background music will become the “new normal”!! Yay!!!

We couldn’t agree more.

Because if a restaurant or bar sounds loud, it’s too loud, and your hearing is at risk.

And now, high ambient noise levels in restaurants and bars are a risk factor for COVID-19 transmission, too.

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.

Another study shows association of hearing loss with cognitive decline

Photo credit: Xiaofan Luo licensed under  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

We have reported previously on associations between hearing loss and dementia in the U.S., and studies finding brain changes associated with decreases in auditory input due to hearing loss. Hearing loss is also associated with depression.

This study from China, published in JAMA Network Open, confirms these associations in a different population. The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study is following a nationally representative survey of adults age 45 and older, and their spouses. The current study looked at data from 18,038 participants with an average age of 59.9. Hearing impairment was associated with worse performance in episodic memory, mental intactness, and global cognition and a greater risk of depression.

Correlation is not causation, but this report from another country with a different language and culture confirms studies in the U.S. and Europe. It’s another piece of the puzzle in trying to understand why some people develop certain problems as they age. Research is ongoing to elucidate how hearing loss contributes to or causes cognitive decline, and whether providing hearing aids can prevent or slow cognitive decline.

In the meantime, we urge people to protect their hearing as assiduously as they protect their vision. We don’t stare at the sun. We wear sunglasses when outdoors. And we should view hearing loud noise just like staring at the sun. Loud noise is as dangerous for the ears as the sun is for the eyes.

Because if something sounds loud, it’s too loud, and auditory health is in danger.

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.

Good news about helicopter overflights? Stayed tuned.

Photo credit: Prayitno  licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

On August 31, the Federal Aviation Administration finally complied with Congress’s now-20-year-old “National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000” that requires the FAA to actively reduce and manage helicopter traffic over national parks and monuments. That’s right–it’s taken 20 years. Will anything change now? That remains to be seen, but the decades-long battle with the FAA to constrain noisy and dangerous helicopter sight-seeing flights seems to stumble from one tragic accident to the next. So it may continue until either (1) somebody invents a truly quiet and safe helicopter, or (2) communities–and smaller federal agencies like the National Park Service–finally gain local control over their airspace, or (3) the head of the FAA, who happens to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, leaves after the upcoming election, and the incoming president appoints somebody who will listen to the public’s concerns about noise and safety.

Please note that there’s already a proposed new Congressional Act on the table in DC called “The Safe and Quiet Skies Act of 2019.” It was offered by Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, who says that “[t]here’s a groundswell of opposition to these [helicopter overflight] tours….[but] the FAA has shown no interest in regulating this industry.”

Case himself keeps his eye on Flight Radar24 to stay on top of the problems encountered by his constituents back home in Hawaii. He also sits on DC’s growing, 48-member Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus. Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, this caucus has grown significantly—enough to twist arms and win noise-control concessions during the struggle over the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

The point is that there’s now an organized and growing group of members of Congress who are paying attention to the aircraft noise issue, and they’ve shown they can get something done. Now let’s hope they’ll grow again in the election this November and flex some muscle over the next Congress beginning in 2021.

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.

Low-cost hearing aid developed

Photo credit: Phil Gradwell licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

According to the World Health Organization, hearing loss is a major problem in much of the world but few of the world’s total population can afford hearing care or hearing aids of any kind.

The World Bank estimates that 700 million people live on less than $2 a day. Daily life is a struggle. Providing food is a struggle. Preventing hearing loss is not even considered, and there are no resources to treat even profound hearing loss. Many African countries lack a single audiologist or ENT specialist.

My own observation during international travel, back in the old days when that was possible for someone holding an American passport, is that many developing countries–Myanmar and India come to mind–were much noisier than the U.S. or Europe. Unmuffled car motors are repurposed to power boats, and workers in noisy occupations like blacksmithing or metal work don’t use hearing protection.

Into the gap come the engineers from Georgia Tech, who have developed a low-cost hearing aid that can be assembled quickly. They call this LocHAid.

In the industrialized world, people don’t want a large hearing aid worn around the neck, but in developing countries, this would be a blessing.

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.

San Francisco Airport adopts “Quiet Airport” plan

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

For many years I have written about the harmful effects of noise, including aircraft noise, on health and well-being. The data linking overhead aircraft noise on residents to an increased risk for cardiovascular disorders, loss of needed sleep, and a diminished quality of life are indeed strong. Yet, individuals still have to cope with those planes flying over their heads, although the pandemic has brought many residents some relief. Thus, it was with great pleasure that I read this article by Lilit Marcus about the San Francisco International Airport turrning off its loudspeaker.

San Francisco International Airport has decided to lessen noise within its airport in a plan it calls “quiet airport.” The airport plans to lessen the decibel level by eliminating unnecessary announcements and by changes to its escalators and moving walkways. The plan to reduce noise is in line with the airport’s efforts to ban single-use plastic water bottles. Thus, it appears that the airport is acknowledging the need for a less polluting, healthier environment.

I would like to know if this airport will go beyond its quiet airport plans to also promote quieter aircraft and less noise-intrusive flight paths. Will San Francisco International Airport urge other U.S. airports to promote its quiet airport plans as well as discuss how airports can work together toward reducing the impact of aircraft noise on neighborhoods? Will the San Francisco International Airport join the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus in urging the Federal Aviation Administration to introduce policies to lessen aircraft noise?

The quieter airport concept should be applauded but it should be seen as only the first step toward a less noisy aviation system.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.