Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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The virus’ unintended consequence–the air is cleaner, quieter

Photo credit: Flora Westbrook from Pexels

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

In my earlier writing, I had suggested that studies would be forthcoming that would focus on the impacts of reduced sound levels brought about by reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. What is obvious to many of us, especially those of us living in urban centers, not just researchers who are tuned in to environmental sounds, is that surrounding sound levels have now been reduced. Fewer cars on the road, fewer nearby train sounds, and fewer overhead aircraft have resulted in less noise intruding into the lives of residents who are disturbed daily by the loud sounds of cars, trains, and aircraft. In New York City, with so many people confined to their homes, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians on major thoroughfares is gone.

Marina Koren’s article in the Atlantic this week is entitled “The Pandemic is Turning the Natural World Upside Down.” Ms. Koren writes that there has been a significant decrease in air pollutants as measured by earth-orbiting satellites. She adds that there is also “significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains and other transportation.” In her piece, she writes about Dr. Erica Walker, a researcher in Boston, who has studied and written about the acoustic environment. Dr Walker has recently taken her decibel meter to measure the sound levels in her community. And since she has written about noise pollution in her city for several years, she can make comparisons of sound levels before and after the Coronavirus. Dr. Walker now reports, using actual sound measurements, that her city has become much quieter.

With less urban noise, city dwellers are now hearing more bird singing, Koren notes. She writes that oceans are quieter today and reports the finding that “whales in the bay experienced a drop in their stress-level hormones.” No surprise, as cruise ships and other maritime vessels bring about an increase in sound levels in the ocean and these higher levels of sound “can increase stress-hormone levels in marine creatures, which can affect their reproductive success.”

As a long-time researcher and writer on the adverse effects of noise on our health and well-being, I never hypothesized about a world with less noise resulting from strict limitations on those human behaviors that have made our planet a noisier one. Nor did I envision that these limitations would come about because of a virus—a microscopic organism that needs host organisms to replicate.

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.

Noise abates as the pandemic rages on

Photo credit: Raed Mansour licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from Yahoo! discusses work being done by the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the British Geological Survey that shows that people staying at home has made some measurable differences.

The work shows that low frequency noise created by humans, picked up by a network of seismometers, has decreased by 33%. The reduction in low frequency vibrations was confirmed by the British Geological Survey.

This new quiet may be one tiny silver lining in the scourge that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Canadians find quiet ways to connect during the pandemic

This photo is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Our Canadian colleague Jan L. Mayes reports that in Vancouver people are working together to help amuse children who can’t play with each other due to the social isolation recommendations during the COVID-19 epidemic. One of these is a “bear hunt.” Residents place teddy bears in the windows of their homes or apartments, for the children to spot and count. There are plans for similar Easter egg hunts, with pictures of Easter eggs to be placed in the windows.

These quiet activities contrast sharply with reports of people banging pans to show support for hospital workers as they go to their workplaces, or community singing from windows or balconies in Italy. Or TV host Jimmy Fallon’s cowbell challenge in the United States.

We have reported that the air has become both quieter (Jimmy Fallon excepted) and cleaner in many parts of the world as people shelter in place and avoid social contact.

This may be a small silver lining in the coronavirus cloud enveloping us 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.

Paris is quiet

Photo credit: Margerretta from Pexels

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

With about 150 sound monitoring stations around Paris and its suburbs, Bruitparif, the agency that oversees the sound levels recorded by these stations, released two charts this week: one depicting the levels of sound before the coronavirus and one after this pandemic took hold. Bruitparif reported a considerable drop in noise emissions, especially near airports, along highways, and in neighborhoods with night clubs that are now shut down.

Yes indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has kept people indoors. Fewer are flying, traveling the roads, or using the rails. While at home, residents are not hearing construction sounds because of construction has been suspended. Paris and its nearby suburbs are much quieter as the graph in the article indicates. I prefer the word quiet to silent.

In 2016, New York University researchers launched a Sounds of New York City (SONYC) program that involves placing sensors in New York City that would provide data on the sound levels at the sites where these sensors would be placed. The data collected by SONYC were to be shared with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection to assist them in more effectively lessening the noise levels in the city.

One could now ask the New York University professors to compare the data collected before the virus took hold in the city with sound level data collected several weeks later. Although such an initiative was not envisioned by the NYU program when it was developed, its data collection could offer a “before” and “after” pandemic view of New York City sound levels.

Other cities, e.g. Berlin, have also gathered data on urban sound levels and have created noise maps from these data. It would be worthwhile to ask other cities whether they, like Paris, have created before and after the coronavirus pandemic noise maps. With noise pollution a major problem, primarily in urban areas, and a health hazard, such data might be useful in designing ways to lessen the adverse impacts from noise.

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.

AARP on hidden hearing loss

Photo credit: Ken Lund licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece from the AARP discusses hidden hearing loss, although it really discusses the “speech-in-noise” problem. The speech-in-noise problem has been known for decades. Namely, people, usually in mid-life or older, complain that they can’t understand speech in a noisy environment, typically a restaurant, but their hearing tests are normal.

Recent research suggests that these people suffer from what is now called hidden hearing loss. Hidden hearing loss is an inability to process speech in noisy environments. It is called “hidden” because standard hearing tests (pure tone audiometry) are normal, but more sophisticated testing used only in research settings finds abnormal processing of complex sounds. The likely cause of hidden hearing loss is damage to the nerve endings in the inner ear, called cochlear synaptopathy. This scientific article discusses the problem in greater detail.

To me, there are two takeaway lessons from the AARP piece. The first is that the speech-in-noise problem is very common in older people.

The second is that this piece is a call to action. AARP advises us to seek out quieter settings, sit in a restaurant booth, or put the noise behind us and the speaker in front of us.

But the piece assumes that noisy restaurants are an inevitable part of life.

I would advise AARP members to ask the manager to turn down the amplified music. If they refuse, walk out or threaten to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And on your way out, tell management that the restaurant is too noisy and you refuse to eat there.  Make sure to note the restaurant’s indifference to your comfort and hearing health in a detailed review on social media, and let your city council representative know about the problem, too.

Restaurant patrons used to have to dine accompanied by unwanted secondhand cigarette smoke. When secondhand smoke was found to be a Class A carcinogen with no known safe level of exposure, we were able to get smoking banned. We have a right to dine without endangering our health.

Noise is also a health hazard, to our hearing and our cardiovascular health. Just as we are entitled to smoke-free restaurants, we have a right to quieter restaurants, 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.

A quieter world is possible

Photo credit: Leon Macapagal from Pexels

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

As a long-term researcher and writer on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health, as well as a strong advocate for a quieter and less noisy world, I was delighted to read two articles in this Sunday’s New York Times real estate section today, March 29th, that focused on the appeal of more quiet and less noise in our lives.

The page one article, entitled “A Window of Opportunity,” states that “[t]hanks to noise reduction technology, living near train tracks is not a problem.” It goes on to explain that developers are now building near rail tracks and people are more willing to live near these tracks because improvements in window technology such as double-pane windows can significantly lessen the intrusive noise from passing trains.

The second article, entitled “Built-In Quiet is Part of a Suburb’s Appeal,” focuses on how living near a cemetery brought considerable quiet to a community of home dwellers because so much space in this New Jersey town is taken up by the cemetery. As one resident said about the cemetery, “to me, it’s beautiful.”

Apparently, these two articles mean that people are more conscious of the hazards of noise and more desirous of living in quieter surroundings. Furthermore, the articles should be reassuring to the anti-noise messengers in that people have been listening to them regarding the dangers of noise and the positive effects of quiet.

As a New York City resident, most of my attention today is focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the effects it has had on people around the world. Yet, I can’t stop from thinking about my noise work because it has taken up so much of my time these past forty years. I have also read articles that this pandemic has resulted in less air pollution and less noise in New York City and other cities as well.

So, I began to wonder if this quiet, to which more people are being exposed, may be comforting to them, especially when there is so much around them to fear. If so, is it not possible that after the pandemic passes and people are able to get on with their lives again, that they might remember the comfort and pleasure quiet brings into one’s life? Is it not possible, that we might see more people joining in to lessen the noise around us? I can dream, can’t I?

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.

 

One woman’s search for a noise-free life

Photo credit: Jeffrey Czum from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In this well-written essay in The Guardian, Emma Beddington describes how noise bothers her and what she does to try to deal with it. Her piece is too distressing to call “delightful,” but I’m sure many could write similar essays about how they try to deal with the noise that bothers them in their everyday lives.

The most common definition of noise is “unwanted sound,” and this definition fits here, but I recently proposed broadening this definition to “noise is unwanted and/orharmful sound.” Even noise levels low enough not to cause auditory damage can be perceived as stressful, and stress is bad for health.

Some noise may be a natural part of urban or rural life. But except, perhaps, for those in certain religious orders, people want quiet and not silence.

And while there are some remedies we can employ to try to quiet the din forcing its way into our homes, reducing noise at its source will always be better than double-paned windows, sound insulation, or noise-cancelling headphones.

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.

Is there a link between noise and crime?

Photo credit: Cameron Casey from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Loud noise may be an indicator of crime–a domestic dispute, a physical altercation, or drug dealing, as discussed by The Quiet Coalition’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD–but a new paper provides startling evidence that noise, in this case aircraft noise, may cause violent crime.

Prof. Timo Hener at Aarhus University in Denmark studied crime under aircraft flight paths in Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt’s airport has a unique situation. Aircraft usually land and take off into the wind, to add additional lift. The wind in Frankfurt is usually from one direction, about 75% of the time, but when it shifts, aircraft land and take off in the opposite direction. Prof. Hener studied crime rates in areas under the flight paths. After adjusting for a number of factors, he found that a 1 decibel increase in aircraft noise caused aa 2.6% increase in assaults, usually on males by persons unknown to them.

It would be impossible to order the airport to shift flight paths and then study crime rates below the flight paths when this is done, but the changing wind directions allow an “experiment of nature” where the weather pattern provides the experimental intervention, and all the researcher has to do is collect the data.

The study needs editorial review by experts in the field and confirmation by other studies, but it is a fascinating study about possible additional adverse impacts of noise on human health and behavior.

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.

How to occupy your time while self-isolating

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

Cities and Memory, a global, collaborative sound project, has launched an intriguing project that will record sounds from the Covid-19 pandemic, entitled #StayHomeSounds:

We’re inviting anyone around the world to send us a sound recording from wherever YOU are, and tell us a little about how things are wherever you live. 

We’ll publish the results on a global sound map, so we can all share a little of our world as we go through these strange and unsettling times.

If you would like to participate, click on the second or third links above to learn more about the project and how you can become involved.

Noise pollution in Arizona

This photo of an F-16 Fighting Falcon taking off from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This podcast from Arizona Public Media discusses noise pollution in Arizona. The particular issue in the Tucson area is fighter jet noise from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. A-10s are noisy but still quieter than F-16s. Residents are now concerned about the possible stationing of new F-35 jets, which are much louder.

The first half of the podcast is citizens explaining their noise problems in the Tucson area. The second have is an interview with The Quiet Coalition’s Richard Neitzel, PhD, on the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Prof. Neitzel is heard at about minute 16 of the podcast, where he discusses the adverse effects of noise on health.

Aircraft noise pollution is well-studied as a health and public health hazard, and is known to cause hypertension and other cardiovascular disease and also interference with learning in schools located beneath flight paths. Do click to listen to the podcast, as it’s well worth your time.

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.