Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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New research shows health benefits of exposure to birdsong

Photo credit: sue licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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

Researchers affiliated with CalPoly University and the Max Planck Institute designed a “phantom sound” method to systematically explore the effects of
exposure to birdsong on the well being of hikers in a natural landscape. Guess what: just the sound of birds singing makes a significant difference!

The method used for this study echoes Jesse Barber’s brilliantly-conceived and widely-acclaimed “phantom road” research at the University of Idaho that showed the effects of highway noise on birds’ migratory and feeding habits.

Both of these research projects brilliantly demonstrate the importance of careful experimental design in doing noise-effects research. Congratulations to the participants in both projects! They will both advance the need for regaining control of the long-neglected issue of noise exposure.

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.

Lockdown quiet offers post-pandemic possibilities

Photo credit: Hans-Peter Bock hpbock@avaapgh.de licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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

As I have written previously, talk among advocates for less noise, like John Stewart of the UK’s Noise Association, has noted that the pandemic may have provided us  the opportunity to reflect on changes we could make that will lead to less noise, air pollution, and climate emissions. The changes focus on reduced dependence on cars, increased space for walking and cycling, and improved public transit.

An article by Bidroha Basu et al., discusses the results of a study that investigated sound levels in Dublin, Ireland before and after lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and provides data supporting the call for more walking and cycling space and improved public transit. The data indicated that sound levels at 12 monitoring stations were reduced after the lockdown. With road traffic noise the dominant noise source for all but two of these sites, the authors believe that it was the road traffic noise reduction during the pandemic that, for the most part, led to lower sound level readings. With one of the sites located near an airport, the authors do comment that air traffic slowdown during the pandemic probably led to the lower sound level at this site.

The article adds that with “noise pollution associated with ill health…city-wide reductions in sound and noise could provide important public health benefits.” The authors also suggest that cities around the world install similar sound monitoring systems to monitor and assess their noise mitigation strategies.

While the horrors brought about by the pandemic have caused much harm to people worldwide, one could take some solace in recognizing that COVID-19 allowed us to rethink our traditional modes of behavior in a way that could lead to behaviors that would enhance everyone’s health and well being.

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.

Buttigieg replaces Chao at DOT–time to make a move

Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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

The U.S. Department of Transportation—the major nexus of the noise problem in the U.S.—has been led by Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Lan Chao, during the Trump administration. Unsurprisingly, she has not addressed the hubris, intransigence, and industry influence that have prevented that agency from addressing noise as a well established and harmful environmental pollutant.

Now comes President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, former McKinsey consultant and mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. As he steps into Chao’s shoes in Biden’s cabinet, he’ll be the person on whom attention will need to focus. Does he understand noise as a public health and planetary problem? Is he willing to support policies for a quieter America? David Welprin, a New York assemblyman, sure thinks so. What will he need to act? And how can Quiet Communities and other like-minded organizations help him?

Pete Buttigieg is clear-headed about environmental issues and what needs to be done. One thing we can hope is that he’ll listen to the 50+ members of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the 50+ regional groups that comprise the Quiet Skies Coalition. While those groups focus strictly on airport and aircraft noise, Secretary Buttigieg will have the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railway Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and others, reporting directly to him.

Organized efforts are needed to get the message to the new Secretary that noise is a public health problem and an environmental health problem. It’s a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to air and water pollution, and another powerful reason to address those problems. When COVID-19 hit, a window opened on the possibility of a cleaner, quieter world. Look at how the skies gleamed bright blue when travel shut down. Look at how marine mammals’ health improved when ocean drilling and shipping halted–all that air and water pollution came from the industries that the DOT oversees. Secretary Buttigieg must be convinced to make those improvements permanent!

How can we help to influence him? We can start by identifying noise as a bellwether–a canary in the coal mine. Listening for noise in the environment works, because we can’t see most air and water pollution. As a result we often ignore it. But most of us hear the noise. So we all have a role to play.

Just by listening and reporting, we can all contribute to reducing the pollution that’s choking us and harming our children.

Now is our chance—the first time in four decades to reverse president Ronald Reagan’s 1981 actions that de-prioritized noise as a public health issue. After 40 years, we’ve reached a tipping point–it’s time to act!

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.

Restaurant noise in the time of COVID and beyond

Photo credit: AdamChandler86 licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I became a noise activist, trying to make the world a quieter place, because I want to be able to have a nice meal with my wife in a restaurant where I can enjoy both the food and the conversation.

Andy Newman in the Eastern County Gazette writes about restaurant noise and the additional considerations about restaurant noise in COVID-19 times. As he notes, most of us go to a restaurant not for the food but for the company. We want to converse with our dining companions. And we can’t do that easily when the restaurant is too noisy.

In COVID-19 times, it turns out that speaking loudly sheds more virus for greater distances than speaking softly. That’s why “background music” (in quotation marks because it’s often turned up to rock concert sound levels) is now banned in the UK.

When ambient noise is high, people talk more loudly to be able to be heard over the din. That was first described by French medical doctor and researcher Etienne Lombard in the early 1900s and is called, naturally enough, the Lombard Effect. Lombard understood that noise becomes a positive feedback loop, with everyone speaking more loudly as the ambient noise increases, until everyone is shouting at each other but no one can understand a word.

Newman asks that we still keep the noise levels down in restaurants, when things get back to normal and we’re not worried about spreading COVID-19.

I heartily agree.

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 returns to Europe after Covid quiet interlude

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Politico reports that noise levels in Europe are increasing after several months of quiet during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Most noise in developed countries is transportation noise from road traffic, aircraft, and trains. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to decreases in all sorts of transportation, Europe and the U.S. became quieter.

This is a good thing. As the article notes, noise is toxic to both humans and animals. Urban dwellers heard birdsong, often for the first time, because it wasn’t obscured by the din of traffic.

The dangers of noise are recognized in Europe, where the World Health Organization published Environmental Noise Guidelines in 2018.

In the U.S., the dangers of noise were recognized in the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978, but implementation of these two laws stopped during the Reagan years when the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded.

We hope that under the Biden administration, implementation of laws meant to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans from the dangers of noise will become a reality again.

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.

Military jets are damaging the quietest region in the U.S.

Photo credit: AvgeekJoe licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

The Olympic National Park in Washington State is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it welcomes more than three million visitors a year to enjoy what Gordon Hempton has identified as “One Square Inch of Silence.” Today this “quietest place in US” is being overwhelmed with military aircraft noise according to a study published by Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden. Diane Urbani de la Paz, Peninsula Daily News, reports that Kuehne and Olden monitored military flights over three sites in the park which included the “most quiet rainforest and region in the U.S.” and found that at times the sound levels “registered at 80 decibels or more.” Olden believes that this deafening noise will adversely affect the wildlife of the park and deter people from visiting this park.

Concerned that the quiet soundscape of the Olympic Peninsula is being overwhelmed by noise, Kuehne informed me that she shared the data of her study with the Navy, hoping that the Navy would consider moving its aircraft training away from the Olympic Peninsula and to a region that would not adversely affect people or quiet parks with overhead aircraft noise. I responded that studies such as hers will put greater pressure on the military and the airline industry in general to explore ways to lessen the impacts of aircraft noise.

Kuehne also told me that she is working with Gordon Hempton, co-founder of Quiet Parks International, an organization dedicated to preserving quiet which, of course, includes protecting our national parks. I, too, am part of Hempton’s organization, serving as an advisor, and urge readers to advocate for the protection of our beautiful, quiet national parks.

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.

Don’t do this at home!

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Fox News 8 in Ohio reported that a woman attacked both her neighbor and his car because the noise he made disturbed her sleep. She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Don’t do this at home!

Seriously, noise complaints are the leading category of complaints in New York City’s 311 system, and local police forces there and in many communities seem unable or unwilling to deal with the problems.

In the UK, police can go to court to get ASBOs–anti-social behavior orders–which allow them to arrest and imprison repeat noise offenders. U.S. municipalities lack such legal authority.

But as many cities get more crowded, at least before COVID-19 times, and as more people are stuck at home working or not because of COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s important that we try to respect each other and be neighborly towards each other.

Especially in these troubled and troubling times.

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.