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The Truth About Noise

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A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking

By Antonella Radicchi, PhD, Steering Committee Member, The Quiet Coalition

I’m pleased to share “A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking,” my essay on soundwalking written especially for newcomers to soundwalking, such as architects, city planners, and policy makers who are interested embracing a holistic and human-centered approach to “city sense and city design.” But my guide is also dedicated to anyone interested in learning about soundwalks, their purposes, how they are designed, and how they are performed.

In the words of Hildegard Westerkamp, a composer and musician who, since the Sixties, has contributed to the definition and spread of soundwalking, a soundwalk is “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment.” Soundwalks have a long history with a consistent body of literature and established practices, especially in the field of sound studies and acoustic ecology where they have been used as educational tools for enhancing sonic awareness and listening skills. But in the past decade especially, they have also been used as a method of inquiry in urban planning and soundscape research projects, and they have employed both solo and group soundwalks.

Against this background, I’ve traced historical notes and drafted a preliminary list of criteria for designing a soundwalk that will be useful for diverse fields of research. My pocket guide to soundwalking proposes specific and diverse methods of soundwalking, drawn from literature review and my practice, and according to the civic, education, and research goals.

A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking” has been recently published in a fantastic book on urban economics, “Perspectives on Urban Economics” (eds Besecke et al.), which “offers a broad palette of perspectives on the multi-layered field of urban and regional economics.” The book pays tribute to Prof. Dr. Dietrich Henckel, who held the Chair of Urban and Regional Economics at TU Berlin’s Institute of Urban and Regional Planning from 2004 to 2017, “and contributed passionately to a wide range of discourses.”

Antonella Radicchi is a registered architect and has a Ph.D. in Urban Design, with doctoral studies conducted at MIT (Cambridge, USA) and at the University of Firenze (IT). She was awarded ihe IPODI-Marie Curie Fellowship, and is currently working on her “Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes” project at the Technical University Berlin. She collaborates with the European Commission Executive Research Agency as an external expert evaluator in the frame of HORIZON 2020. Her project, Toscana Sound Map, was commissioned for and exhibited at EXPO 2015 in Milan, and since 2009  she has been the curator of Firenze Sound Map, which was included in the Open Data System of the Municipality of Firenze in 2013. Dr. Radicchi has lectured extensively at the university level for ten years and has participated in international conferences and symposiums. In 2017 she has launched Hush City app, a citizen science project, to push the boundaries of knowledge and to promote the environmentally just city.

 

Swiss study confirms transportation noise causes health problems

Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

It is well-known in Europe that transportation noise causes adverse health effects, including sleep loss, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and death. The World Health Organization’s European Office published a monograph on the burden of disease from noise, and the European Noise Directive lays out a government plan to deal with the problem. Studies in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries have consistently shown this, most often with a relationship between greater noise exposure and worse health outcomes.

At the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN) meeting in Zürich in June–the world’s largest meeting on the health effects of noise–Swiss researchers presented the results of a study done in their country. The results are from an integrated research approach dubbed SiRENE (the acronym roughly translates to Short and Long Term Effects of Transportation Noise Exposure) looking at noise exposure, sleep patterns, clinical testing for sleep disorders and glucose metabolism, mathematical modeling of noise exposure for the Swiss population, and determination of noise-induced health risks for the Swiss population. The study is ongoing, but interim reports at ICBEN were consistent with reports from other countries: transportation noise exposure caused cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and increased the risk of dying from a heart attack by 4% for each 10 decibel increase in road noise at home.

We are certain transportation noise has the same adverse health effects on Americans even if the research here is limited. Perhaps the best-known American study of the effect of transportation noise on health was done by Correia et al, looking at hospital admissions in the Medicare population in people living near airports. That study was limited in its scope and methods, but not surprisingly, transportation noise exposure increased hospital admissions here, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Planning a visit to Paris this year?

Elizabeth von Pier, The LA Times, tells us about 10 places to find a little peace and quiet in Paris.

Thinking about a visit to London, instead? No worries, check out A Peace of London to “[d]iscover quiet places in London with peaceful nooks and historic corners that yearn to be explored.” The proprietress, Charlotte, scours the city to find places where you can “[e]at, write and relax in the city’s most unusual spots.” Just this week, Charlotte reveals the quietest time to visit the Tower of London (and for free).

You can also look for Siobhan Wall’s quiet guides to London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York at your bookseller of choice, or visit Quiet Edinburgh’s website for suggestions about quiet places to eat, drink, and shop in Edinburgh.

If you know of any other blogs, websites, guides, or recent articles about quiet spots in your favorite cities, please share them in the comments.

 

Here’s why Amazon won’t be delivering by drone anytime soon

Imagine a fleet of these flying over you. Always.

A NASA study has discovered that people find the buzz of drones more annoying than any other kind of vehicle. Not convinced? Well, this is what a swarm of 103 micro-drones sounds like (Caution: sound level is very loud at first, so lower volume. Drone sound starts at 1:52):

Mind you, those are micro-drones with a wingspan under 12 inches, not drones capable of delivering your new microwave or big box of unnecessary things.

Something that has become increasingly clear is that planners, engineers, regulators, and legislators need to think about noise and its consequences when they consider new ideas like drone delivery. Everything is connected, perhaps even more so as we live closer together, and the freedom of individuals, organizations, or commercial operations to do something must be balanced with the rights of those affected so that their lives are not disrupted by this new activity.

And what happens if we fail to consider the impacts of new technologies on others? Imagine walking down a city street with a loud, never-ending buzz hovering over you, as your fellow city denizens anxiously wait for the delivery of their new shiny thing. Jane Jacobs would spin in her grave. One hopes, at least, that your flying car will be sound insulated.

 

 

Why is New York City so noisy?

Winnie Hu, The New York Times, writes about the number one complaint in the city, noise, in, “New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up.” And we discover that the short answer to the question as to why the city is so noisy may be this: New York City needs more noise enforcers.

Hu interviews Richard T. McIntosh, a long-time resident of the Upper East Side who complains that he “has never heard such a racket outside his window.” Hu writes:

New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing.

Construction is a huge factor in the increase in noise, but residents can’t escape outdoor noise by ducking into noisy city restaurants, gyms, and stores. And noise complaints have increased even after the city adopted an overhauled noise code in 2007. So what can be done? Hu writes that city councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, “has made curbing noise one of his top priorities,” adding that “[h]e and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act.”

Hu reports that while “the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs.” So how many inspectors does the Department of Environmental Protection have? Only 54 for a city of over 8 million residents. Apparently 8 more inspectors are going to be hired this year, bringing the total number of inspectors for all five boroughs to meager 62. And the response time is equally appalling. Hu reports that median response for police officers was 152 minutes, but the median response “for noise inspectors was four days in 2016.”

With construction noise before and after hours being the top complaint in every borough except for Staten Island, it’s unreasonable to expect noise violators to change their behavior when an inspector may show up four days after a noise complaint is filed. Indeed, a recent audit of New York City noise complaints by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”

City councilman Kallos believes that increasing the number of noise inspectors “would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation.” Kallos adds that “[i]t is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen.” We agree. We also agree with Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Chair of Noise Committee for Grow NYC, who notes that “with eight inspectors being hired soon, apparently we do not need legislation to hire inspectors, we just need the money for increased hires to be added to the budget NOW.”

If you live in New York City and want to see Kallos’ and Constantinides’ proposed legislation move forward, contact your city council person and ask him or her to sign on. While you’re at it, ask your councilperson what his or her answer is to New York City’s noise problem. Not sure who represents you in the city council? Click here to find out.  If you reach out to your councilperson’s office, please report back and tell us how they responded in the comments.

And Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, weighs in with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Landscapers fail to blow away leaf blower bans

Photo credit: Dean Hochman licensed under CC BY 2.0

Recently, the city of Newton, Massachusetts, and town of Maplewood, New Jersey, passed restrictions on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers because of public health, safety and environmental concerns. Gas-powered leaf blowers are a source of substantial pollution as well as deafening noise levels. In both cases, the courts refused to grant emergency relief to the landscapers thereby allowing the ordinances to take effect. Here are the stories of what happened and what they mean. Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Executive Director, Quiet Communities

By Jeanne Kempthorne, J.D., Co-Chair, Quiet Communities Legal Advisory Council

Landscapers came out swinging to prevent municipalities in New Jersey and Massachusetts from enforcing gas-powered leaf blower ordinances limiting their use. So far, they’ve struck out.

Quiet Communities’ legal advisors have been following the litigation with interest, and have provided legal and technical assistance to municipalities forced to respond to last-minute efforts to stymie enforcement of local ordinances.

Newton, MA

In January 2017, the City of Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb west of Boston, amended its noise ordinance to, among other things, limit the use of leaf blowers between Memorial and Labor Days to the use of a single electric- or battery-powered machine emitting no more than 65 decibels per property. (The previous ordinance had already limited the permissible decibel level to 65, but was rarely enforced). The amendment followed two years of study and hearings by the City Council.

Shortly before Memorial Day when the summer limitations would take effect, a group of landscapers filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the enforcement of the amended ordinance. They argued that the ordinance was preempted by state environmental laws concerning air quality and claimed they would suffer irreparable economic injury if the ordinance were enforced. The plaintiffs also raised constitutional due process and equal protection claims, the latter on the basis of the ordinance’s distinction between gas- and non-gas-powered equipment operated at the same decibel level .

The Middlesex Superior Court denied the landscapers’ motion for a preliminary injunction, emphasizing, first, that the landscapers had not proved that they would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction. The plaintiffs had sworn in affidavits that they would suffer the loss of some business as a result of raising prices in order to comply with the ordinance, which, even if true, falls far short of the necessary proof of irreparable injury.

Turning to the merits, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their legal claims at trial. Addressing preemption, which the court characterized as the “principal challenge to the Ordinance,” the court stated that the landscapers’ argument lacks merit because “[t]he [state] Air Act . . .  nowhere mentions noise pollution let alone suggests field preemption with respect to noise control.” The court emphasized that state law expressly authorizes municipal noise ordinances–-a fact the landscapers had ignored. Finally, the court summarily rejected the due process and equal protection challenges as unlikely to succeed. The City need merely show that the ordinance is a rational exercise of its police power, and that the distinction drawn between types of equipment is rationally related to a legitimate purpose.

Maplewood, NJ

In early April, the town of Maplewood, New Jersey, adopted an ordinance that prohibits the commercial use of gas-powered leaf blowers from May 15 through September 30. This replaced a previous ordinance that banned the use of equipment louder than 65 dB, an ordinance the Town found nearly impossible to enforce. On May 10, five days before the ordinance was scheduled to take effect, the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, “a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to advancing the integrity, proficiency, profitability and personal growth of the landscape professional,” sued the town, its mayor, and the township committee in federal district court in New Jersey seeking to invalidate the ordinance and to enjoin its enforcement.

The NJLCA complained that the ordinance was arbitrary and irrational in distinguishing between commercial and non-commercial users, and therefore ran afoul of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the state constitution. It also argued that the ordinance was preempted by the federal Clean Air and Occupational Safety and Health Acts. According to the complaint, the Clean Air Act empowered the State of California, and only the State of California, to regulate emissions from two-stroke, “in-use, non-road” engines. California having not done so, no other state or political subdivision of a state may do so. Nor may the town impose other or different requirements to protect workers, NJLCA complains, because OSHA already regulates worker safety.

In opposing the landscaper association’s motion for an injunction, the Town argued that it rationally distinguished between commercial and non-commercial users in terms of intensity and frequency of use. Moreover, the Town rationally concluded that commercial users were unlikely to engage in problem-solving discussions with the neighbors concerning noise and pollution. The Town disputed the premise of the Clean Air Act preemption argument, noting that the ordinance does not purport to regulate emissions. Finally, the Town noted that the landscapers did not merit equitable relief since it was apparent that they had ignored the previous ordinance which banned equipment operating at more than 65 decibels, which most commercial gas-powered leaf blowers do.

After a hearing on the association’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court dismissed the landscape association’s complaint without deciding whether the constitutional and preemption arguments had merit. Instead, it ruled that the association lacked legal “standing” to bring the complaint. If an individual landscaper is willing to be named as plaintiff, the complaint may be refiled. So far, that has not happened. Stay tuned . . .

Our take

What these cases illustrate is a burgeoning threat to local initiatives to protect the health and safety of community residents: the misuse of the little-understood preemption doctrine, which is being deployed more and more by business interests to quash democratic action at the municipal level. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the legitimate concerns of the public and industry workers, some in the landscaping industry have chosen to fight local efforts to protect public health and safety in court, forcing municipalities to spend scarce resources defending their right to enact and enforce local ordinances. Happily, the courts are calling them out.

We do not mean to sweep in a pile all players in the landscaping industry. Many responsible landscapers are conscious of the social, health, and environmental impacts of their work and are more than willing to pick up a rake or to use quieter, cleaner, and safer equipment. Ask them! Let’s reward those who are willing to work towards a more healthy, clean, and serene environment with our business.

Originally posted at Quiet Communities.

Tired of background music in public spaces? Want to make it stop?

Photo credit: Andypiper licensed under CC BY 2.0

Introducing Quiet Ann Arbor! Finally, the U.S. has a local chapter of Pipedown, a UK organization that campaigns “for freedom from piped music” (i.e., ubiquitous background music) in “pubs, restaurants and hotels; in the plane, train or bus; down the phone; ruining decent television programmes; adding to the overall levels of noise pollution in public places.”

The Ann Arbor organization has just been formed, and the website is a work in progress, but it’s a start. If you live in Ann Arbor and want the piped in music to stop, contact them by clicking this link. Their mission is simple: to promote the benefits of silence and encourage noise moderation in public. Live in the U.S. but not in Ann Arbor? Contact Pipedown to start your own chapter.

Hear, hear!

And for those who think fighting public noise is ridiculous or not worth one’s time, we note that Pipedown scored a big victory last year when it got Marks & Spencer, the UK’s biggest chain store, to turn off the piped music in their stores.

Good luck, Quiet Ann Arbor!

New Zealand researchers agree: hearing loss is probably a dementia risk factor

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Many people don’t understand the process of medical and scientific research and how different hypotheses are developed and tested, using different methods in different human populations with animal studies when possible, until a consensus is reached. This was how researchers–including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers using animal models, and scientists doing basic research at the cellular, molecular, and genetic levels–figured out that cigarette smoke causes cancer and many other diseases, and how it does this. Despite the broad scientific and public health consensus, there are still skeptics, such as those at the conservative Heartland Institute, who say there is still doubt about whether smoking causes lung cancer. There is also a Flat Earth Society. Many Americans think that evolution is an unproven theory despite more than a century of research and strong evidence supporting evolution.

For the rest of us who believe in evidence-based science and evidence-based social and economic policies, our understanding of reality is always evolving based on the evidence. Sometimes something long thought to be true is found not to be correct after all. In medicine, one of the best examples may be ulcers in the stomach and small intestine, which for decades were thought to be caused by too much stomach acid but were found to be caused by bacteria. Australians Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for making this discovery. But most of the time an early hypothesis is confirmed by one study, and then another, and then by studies in animal models, and then by basic science research, until a broad consensus is reached.

This is what is happening with the hypothesis that hearing loss is associated, probably causally, with dementia. Dr. Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University may be the best-known researcher in this field but other researchers in other countries are studying the same question. This report from New Zealand discusses what is being done there. And this report from the UK discusses research presented there.

It’s always good to have confirmation of research by different researchers using different techniques in different populations. Such confirmation helps validate initial findings in one population and help move our understanding forward. We know that noise exposure causes hearing loss. If hearing loss is shown to be causally associated with the development of dementia, then preventing hearing loss should help to also prevent dementia. One theory is that they brain needs input to maintain function, and without auditory input and/or social connections, brain function declines. Another theory is that whatever degenerative process causes hearing loss also causes loss of mental function. Ongoing studies, providing hearing aids to those with hearing loss but not to others and then measuring intellectual function over time, may elucidate the cause-effect relationship. Regardless, we don’t need to wait for more evidence for the link. Preserving one’s hearing should be enough reason to avoid loud noise or to wear ear plugs if you can’t.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Looking for a quiet dishwasher?

Photo credit: Harry Wood licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

You are not alone. According to Consumer Reports, with the rise in interest in open floor plan kitchens, consumers want a quiet dishwasher to avoid drowning adjacent space with noise. Fortunately, “[m]anufacturers have listened to the complaints,” leading to new dishwashers that are “quieter than ones made even five years ago.”

So which dishwasher should you buy? Consumer Reports helps you find the right one.

New drug may prevent hearing loss after noise exposure

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

For many years, a body of research has shown that chemicals with antioxidant properties might prevent or reduce hearing loss after noise exposure. In animals, noise exposure reduces levels of a chemical called glutathione peroxidase 1 (a naturally occurring enzyme). A recent report in the British journal The Lancet looks at how a similar chemical, ebselen, works in helping to reduce “both temporary and permanent noise-induced hearing loss in preclinical studies.”

It appears to work quite well.

Of course, we at The Quiet Coalition think it’s better just to avoid loud noise exposure, which is 100% safe and effective at preventing hearing loss. That said, the experimental protocol raises interesting questions about research ethics. Namely, the study tested the efficacy of different doses of ebselen after the subjects, healthy adults aged 18–31 years, were exposed to loud sound. The measure of ebselen’s success was the prevention of a phenomenon called temporary threshold shift (TTS), more completely noise-induced temporary threshold shift (NITTS). This audiometric measure has been used for decades to measure the impact of noise on humans.

Unfortunately, recent research, beginning with a 2009 report and updated last year describes a phenomenon called “hidden hearing loss,” a synaptopathy (injury to the synapses in the cochlea) caused by noise exposure. Hidden hearing loss is called that because it is not detected by standard audiometric techniques. Hidden hearing loss is the likely cause of being unable to follow one conversation among many in a noisy environment, or having a normal or near-normal audiogram but still having difficulty understanding speech.

Many experts think that there is no temporary auditory damage. That is, TTS is a real phenomenon but the use of the word “temporary” is misleading because if TTS occurs then it is likely that permanent auditory damage has also occurred.

In this study, healthy young adults were exposed to noise levels loud enough and long enough to cause TTS, likely indicating permanent auditory damage. Some of the subjects were given large enough doses of the experimental drug ebselen to prevent TTS from occurring, but whether the drug would or wouldn’t work, and at what dosage, wasn’t known when the study began. Simply put, the study exposed all subjects to the threat of auditory damage, and most likely caused auditory damage in the subjects who received the placebo or didn’t get a high enough dose of the experimental drug.

All research protocols in the U.S. must pass review by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) which must make certain that steps are taken to prevent harm to research subjects.. Under the Helsinki Declaration of the World Medical Association, and in the United States under what is called the federal “Common Rule” (45 CFR §46 et seq.), human subjects must be protected. If there is a risk of permanent auditory damage when the phenomenon of TTS is observed–and Drs. Liberman and colleagues certainly think that temporary auditory changes denote permanent auditory damage–we think the IRB should have done more to protect the subjects from any possibility of harm.

How could a study that exposes young people to noise levels loud and long enough to cause TTS pass IRB review? We hope the federal Office for Human Research Protections will let us know.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.