Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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Loud sound may pose more harm than previously thought

The Associated Press (AP) reports that “[s]cientists have been finding evidence that loud noise — from rock concerts, leaf blowers, power tools, and the like — damages our hearing in a previously unsuspected way.”  The damage “may not be immediately noticeable, and it does not show up in standard hearing tests,” the AP adds, but according to Harvard researcher M. Charles Liberman,” it can rob our ability to understand conversation in a noisy setting [and] may also help explain why people have more trouble doing that as they age.”  The condition is called “hidden hearing loss,” and Liberman adds that “[n]oise is more dangerous than we thought.”

The AP interviews Matt Garlock, a 29-year old systems engineer who is “a veteran of rock concerts.”  Garlock complained of not being able to hear friends in a crowded bar, but when he got his hearing checked his test results were normal. The AP writes that Liberman’s work “suggests that there’s another kind of damage that doesn’t kill off hair cells, but which leads to experiences like Garlock’s.”  Specifically, Liberman believes that loud noise damages the delicate connections between hair cells, called synapses.  He adds that animal studies show that “you could lose more than half of your synapses without any effect on how you score on an audiogram,” but if you lose enough synapses, it “erodes the message the nerves deliver to the brain, wiping out details that are crucial for sifting conversation out from background noise.”

The end result is that people like Garlock recognize that they have a problem but their hearing appears to be fine when they take conventional hearing tests. Fortunately, Liberman says that “[o]ne encouraging indication from the animal studies is that a drug might be able to spur nerves to regrow the lost synapses.”  [Note: This article notes that Liberman has a financial stake in a company that is trying to develop such treatments.]  But while treatment for hidden hearing loss may be available in the future, what can be done now?  Liberman states that his work “lends a new urgency to the standard advice about protecting the ears in loud places.”  As always, prevention is better than treatment.

 

Another Silent Spring

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the harmful effects of insecticides and herbicides on birds, beneficial insects, animals, and humans.  Her book helped start the environmental movement. For too many people, this will be another silent spring, caused not by a dearth of birds but because people can’t hear birds sing. They have hearing loss from another environmental pollutant, noise.

Carson described how nature’s balance controlled pest species naturally, and how these species became problems only when humans changed the environment. She noted the difference between apparent short-term safety of agrichemicals and longer-term danger. People could get sprayed with pesticides or even ingest them without apparent immediate harm, with cancer and birth defects coming later.

If Carson were alive today, she might write about noise pollution, which interferes with animal feeding, communication, mating behaviors, and navigation in forests, fields, and oceans, and causes hearing loss and other medical problems in humans.  In nature’s quiet, animals developed exquisite hearing to find food or avoid being eaten. An owl can find a mouse under a foot of snow, and zebras can hear lions approaching in the veldt.

Humans are also born with excellent hearing.  Brief exposure to loud noise usually doesn’t cause obvious auditory damage in humans, but longer or repeated exposure does. The relationship between noise and hearing loss was first noted in medieval times in bell ringers and miners, then in boilermakers during the industrial revolution.  Noise wasn’t a widespread problem, and except in large cities life was usually quiet.

Industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization made life noisier.  Noise was recognized as a public health hazard in the early days of interstate highways and jet travel, but was also considered an environmental pollutant. In 1972 Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish noise standards and require noise labeling for consumer and industrial products.

During the Reagan administration, however, Congress defunded EPA noise control activities. Little has been done since to control noise, and our country has gotten noticeably louder. Sound levels of 90-100 decibels or louder are reported in restaurants, clubs, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms, sports events, concerts, and parties, from sirens, vehicles, landscape maintenance equipment, and construction, and for those using personal music players.

The National Institutes of Health states that prolonged exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This is misleading, because no exposure time is given and hearing damage occurs at much lower levels. The 85-decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, not a safe noise level for the public.. The EPA adjusted the occupational standard for additional noise exposure outside the workplace to calculate the noise level for preventing hearing loss to be a daily time-weighted average of only 70 decibels.

Hearing is the social sense, required for spoken communication. About 40 million American adults age 20-69 have noise induced hearing loss, half of them without noisy jobs. Why is this happening? They are exposed to loud everyday noise.  Cumulative noise exposure eventually causes hearing loss, affecting 25% of those in their 60s, half in their 70s, and 80% in their 80s, and is correlated with social isolation, depression, dementia, falls, and mortality. Due to denial, stigma, and cost only 20% of older Americans with hearing loss acquire hearing aids, after an average seven-year delay, and 40% of people with hearing aids don’t use them much, largely because hearing aids don’t help users understand speech well in noisy environments.

Preventing noise-induced hearing loss is simple: avoid loud noise. If it sounds too loud, it is too loud. Free or inexpensive smart phone sound meter apps make it easy to measure sound levels, but if one can’t converse without straining to speak or to be heard, ambient noise is above the auditory injury threshold of 75-78 decibels and auditory damage is occurring.

A quieter world is easily attainable. Whisper-quiet dishwashers, cars with quiet interiors and exhausts, the Airbus A380, and a few quiet restaurants and stores prove this.   Effective noise control technologies have long existed, including noise reduction via design and material specifications and sound insulating, isolating, reflecting, diffusing, or absorbing techniques.  Indoors, all that may be necessary is turning down the background music volume, which costs nothing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, half of all American men smoked and public spaces and workplaces were filled with tobacco smoke. When research showed that tobacco smoke caused cancer and heart disease, governments restricted smoking, leading eventually to today’s largely smoke-free society. Smokers can still smoke, but can’t expose others involuntarily to their smoke.

Noise causes hearing loss. Governments should set and enforce indoor and outdoor noise standards, to reduce each person’s daily noise dose. Adults have the right to make and listen to all the noise they want, but not where others can hear them. If we can breathe smoke-free air, we can make a quieter world, so future generations won’t have to endure another silent spring.

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

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Do you have hidden hearing loss?

Dstanczyk87

Photo credit: Dstanczyk87

Not sure?  One halllmark of hidden hearing loss is having difficulty hearing when you are in a noisy setting.  Recently, the Associated Press asked the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami to prepare an exercise to help readers determine how well they can hear in a noisy background. Click the link to try the exercise and see if are showing signs of hidden hearing loss.

An interesting look at the cultural response to noise

Photo credit: Julian Mason

In “Living loud in China’s lively public spaces,” , BBC News, writes about noise in China’s bustling cities. McDonnell states that “[t]here is something incredible about the way in which societies, cities, subcultures find their level in terms of acceptable public volume.”  For example, he notes that there are “bustling cities – rammed with millions of people – where you could be frowned upon for disrupting others with a raised voice: Seoul, London, Tokyo… especially Tokyo.” But McDonnell has lived the last 12 years living in China, where, he notes:

There are some societies where people are expected to avoid being noisy in public and they behave accordingly. Then there’s China.

He describes the “cacophony of chaos” he experiences in a cafe, where someone “starts a phone call at the top of their voice,” as two buddies loudly play video games on their phones, and “a young convert to Christianity sits down next to [him] and starts praying” just as a nearby “hippie looking Chinese bloke has booted up his laptop and Coldplay starts belting out of the speakers.”  This experience is not atypical, he writes, and adds that, looking around, “nobody but me has reacted as if this is anything but completely normal.”

Interestingly, he says that there is only one other city where he has seen this phenomenon–New York–where he describes a similar experience in a diner.  McDonell ponders, “[m]aybe you have to speak up in order to be heard amongst a huge population?”  That is, maybe it’s the space and not just the culture that determines the “acceptable public volume?” After all, he asks, “what noise does a Chinese farmer have to compete in the field?”

 

A victory for residents living near NYC’s LaGuardia Airport!

Photo credit: Eric Salard

If it seems like airplane noise has been in the news lately, it’s because it has.  Whether it’s East Hampton residents petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision on the town’s proposed airport noise regulations, or an opinion piece debunking a study by a conservative think tank that tries to dismiss legitimate complaints about aviation noise due to the Federal Aviation Administration’s program known as NextGen, airplane noise is an issue that simply isn’t going away.  And with the money and power squarely on the side of the FAA and the airlines, it’s exciting to see residents win a round, as neighbors of LaGuardia Airport did this past week.

Donald Wood, Travel Pulse, writes that “officials from Delta Air Lines announced the carrier will no longer be flying one of its loudest aircraft at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport due to complaints from residents around the facility.”  Specifically, Delta is replacing the noisier MD-88 aircraft “with quieter, more fuel-efficient Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and several MD-90 mainline aircraft.”  Naturally LaGuardia Airport’s neighbors are thrilled.  Wood writes that the old planes “caused some residents in the Queens borough of New York City to deal with noise so loud that it shook their homes on a near constant basis since the Federal Aviation Administration changed flight paths four years ago.”

The Times Ledger reports that U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing), former co-chair and founder of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, weighed in, saying:

Delta’s move will have a positive impact on airplane noise over our borough, and it will make a difference to those who reside near the airport. I look forward to building on this switch to quieter aircraft and working with airline officials to further mitigate airplane noise.

U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) added that:

[Delta’s] move that is not just about improving the quality of the traveling experience but also about improving the quality of life for New Yorkers on the ground. While airplanes can never be truly silent, we can work to make them less disruptive to the families who live nearby and I applaud Delta for taking steps toward that goal.

Here’s hoping Delta and other airlines employ this fix at other airports around the U.S.

 

An explainer on noise cancelling headphones:

How do noise cancelling headphones work? Royce Wilson, news.com.au, writes about noise cancelling headphones, the cure-all to our modern noisy world.  But have you ever wondered how they actually work?  Wilson reports that there are “two types of noise cancelling technologies for headphones — passive and active,” and he asked University of Queensland School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering research fellow and lecturer Dr Konstanty Bialkowski about the different approaches.  Dr. Bialkowski said that the passive technology is “like having a cup around your ear that reduces high-frequency noise” (“people talking or high-pitched squealing”), while active cancellation is for low-frequency noise (e.g., low-pitched hum like a car engine, aeroplane engine or a fan).  With active cancellation, the headset, which has a microphone, “knows the distance between the microphone and your ear and it makes [a] complete opposite noise” to cancel out the distracting noise.

Click the link for the full article, which includes a review of the Sony’s MDR-1000X wireless noise cancelling headphones.

 

Is your home too noisy? Here’s a useful guide to help make your space more peaceful:

How to solve common sound problems in your home. Kate Wagner, a graduate student in Acoustics writing for Curbed.com, has written an interesting piece on room acoustics that is very accessible for the layperson.  She describes basic acoustic principles and examines common sound problems and solutions.  Whether the issue is your entertainment system or an open plan space, Wagner offers straight forward suggestions you can use to make your home as aurally comfortable as possible.

If you want to learn more about about sound absorption, reflection, diffusion, and transmission to see how they affect the sound quality of a room, watch this short and informative video Wagner linked to in her piece:

 

What’s the difference between noise and sound?

By Daniel Fink, MD

One of the heated discussions that sometimes occurs among those of us concerned about noise is the use of the terms “noise” and “sound.” Some people insist that we hear noise but measure sound. Others say the terms can be used interchangeably.

The word “noise” means “unwanted sound,” with an implication of being bothersome. One dictionary definition of noise is, “a sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.”   “Sound,” on the other hand, implies meaning, “a particular auditory impression.”

Nina Kraus, Professor of Communication Sciences, Neurobiology, and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University, has written an intriguing article for Scientific American that discusses new research that shows that our brains can actually tell the difference between noise and sound. Studies of brain waves, done at Northwestern, show that sound is understood by the brain while noise merely disrupts it.  And noise not only interferes with function, it can actually damage the brain:

Noise is more pernicious than an in-the-moment nuisance. Even a modest level of noise, over a long enough period of time (e.g. beeping garbage trucks, hair dryers, air conditioners), can cause damage to the brain networks that extract meaning from sound. Many of us don’t even realize our brains are being blunted and our thinking impeded by this invisible force.

So what can we do to protect our brains from damaging noise?  We can’t shut out all sound, because “the absence of meaningful sound also leaves a mark on the ability to process sound.”  Dr. Kraus adds that “there are distinct ways to tone and hone your listening brain.”  Namely:

You can learn a second language. The challenge of juggling two languages bolsters the auditory system and redounds to improvements in cognitive functions such as attention.

Another way to exercise your auditory brain is to play a musical instrument. This has a huge payoff cognitively and emotionally for children and adults alike. A few years of playing an instrument while in school sharpens the auditory system and can benefit language development in children. And this benefit lasts a lifetime.

Fascinating!  Even more supporting evidence for the goal of The Quiet Coalition: to make the world quieter, one decibel at a time.

Dr. 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 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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Noise, the “ignored pollutant.”

“The sonic backdrop to our lives is increasingly one of unwanted technospheric noise,” writes Paul Mobbs for the Ecologist.  Mobbs, an independent environmental researcher and author, explores the sounds of nature and the toll that noise takes “on our health, wellbeing and quality of life.”  He writes about a ritual he has engaged in from since before his teens, where a few times a year he goes for a walk “well before the dawn, in order to listen to the ‘dawn chorus.'” “Over that period,” notes Mobbs, “there’s been one inescapable change in the countryside around my home town of Banbury – noise.”

On his recent walk, Mobbs’ objective was to reach Salt Way, an old Roman salt route fringing the south-western quadrant of Banbury. “Due to its age Salt Way has exceptionally dense, wide and species-rich ancient hedgerows which demarcate it from the surrounding fields,” which Mobbs asserts is “[p]erfect for listening to birds.” Except that morning a slight breeze was wafting the sound of a large motorway that was over 2 1/2 miles away.  Reflecting on this walk, Mobbs examines lost tranquility and noise as a nuisance, and introduces us to ecopsychology as he ponders “the fundamental psychological human dependence upon the natural environment.”  It’s a fascinating piece that really should be read in its entirety.  Click the first link to do that.

 

Will the Supreme Court take on airport noise?

Photo credit: Matthew Grapengieser

East Hampton Petitions U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Airport Noise Case. Beth Young, East End Beacon, reports that East Hampton Town filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision on the town’s proposed airport noise regulations “that would rob East Hampton and thousands of other local airport sponsors of their ability to manage their airport, in the best interests of their residents.”  Young writes that in April 2015 the town adopted two local laws that established year-round curfews–a mandatory nightime curfew and an extended curfew on noisy aircraft–and “also enacted a third law imposing a one-trip-a-week restriction on noisy aircraft.”

The laws were challenged by “a group of aviation advocates.”  The district court upheld the two curfews but “issued a preliminary injunction against the one-trip-per week limit.”  On appeal, the Second Circuit issued a preliminary injunction blocking all three three local laws.  According to Young, “[t]he town maintains it has the right to exert local control over its airport after not taking federal funds for upkeep of the airport for several years.”  Said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a press release Monday afternoon:

We followed the FAA’s advice and elected to forgo federal funding so that we could protect our residents. We engaged in a lengthy public process to identify meaningful but reasonable restrictions, and the District Court agreed that we met that test. But, with the stroke of a pen, the appeals court decision has federalized our airport and stripped us – and the thousands of similarly situated airports – of the ability to exert local control. We cannot let that decision stand.

The town filed its petition on March 6th, and the response is due on April 5th. In the event that the Supreme Court rejects the town’s petition, it will pursue other avenues for relief. Said East Hampton Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez,”[t]he town board is pursuing all avenues for redress – both in the courts and in Congress – and we will continue the fight until we regain local control of East Hampton Airport.”