Monthly Archive: March 2017

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

Attention city dwellers

Mimi Hearing Technologies, a German company that has developed an app that allows users to test their ears for a personalized music experience, has issued their World Hearing Index. What does it do? Mimi found that “the average city dweller has a hearing loss equivalent to 10-20 years older than their actual age.”  So for World Hearing Day, the company developed the Worldwide Hearing Index “to draw attention to this global issue.”  To create the index they analyzed data from their Mimi hearing test app and paired their data with “research from the World Health Organization (WHO) on noise pollution in 50 cities internationally.” The end result is a ranking of world cities based on hearing loss.

Click the first link to see where your city ranks.

Let’s hope this UK project comes to the U.S.:

Silence is golden in woodland for quiet reflection. Emily Flanagan, The Northern Echo, writes about Thorp Perrow Arboretum, a historic country estate, that is “the first garden in the north of England to take part in the Silent Space project, which invites public gardens to reserve an area where visitors can wander, or reflect silently away from phones and the distractions of modern life.” Flanagan tells us that Silent Space was the brainchild of garden writer Liz Ware, who felt that “[o]ur lives are very hectic and we rarely allow ourselves time to be quiet.”  Silent Spaces was established as a not-for-profit project in 2016, and a “handful of gardens that open to the public agreed to take part and to reserve an area where people could be silent.”

Click this link to learn more, including the rules governing silent spaces:

Once inside a Silent Space, we stop talking, turn off our phones and cameras, and switch off from social media. There are no other rules.

 

Noise isn’t just a city problem

On Banning Leaf Blowers.” Kaysen writes that “New Yorkers who leave the city for the suburbs often do so for three reasons: schools, space and silence.” But she adds that “silence, it turns out, can be a problem.” Why? Because while “suburban streets are certainly free of blaring horns, wailing sirens and, sometimes, even people…come springtime, they vibrate with the hum of lawn mowers, edgers, trimmers and leaf blowers; the accompanying noise continues until the last leaves fall from the trees in early December.”

So what can suburbanites do to quell the din?  Kaysen tells us that the Township of Maplewood, New Jersey is considering a ban on the noisiest and most noxious of a landscaper’s tools: leaf blowers. The township’s proposed ordinance prohibits commercial use of blowers from May 15 through September 30, and imposes strict limits as to use for the rest of the year. The ordinance also imposes fines, starting at $500 for the first offense.

The problem with leaf blowers is twofold. As Jamie Banks, the founder of Quiet Communities, a group that advocates quieter lawn maintenance equipment, states: “[I]t’s not just the noise. It’s the pollution.”  Kaysen adds that:

Most landscapers use leaf blowers with two-stroke engines, which are light enough to carry but produce significant exhaust and noise. The gas and oil mix together, and about a third of it does not combust. As a result, pollutants that have been linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma and other serious ailments escape into the air.

Despite there being alternatives–say, a rake?–there is pushback, of course. Residents who hate noise are facing off with residents who feel the ordinance will “hamstrung their gardeners, leaving their yards looking unkempt, with grass suffocating beneath piles of clippings.”  And landscapers insist that leaf blowers are essential, claiming that “when used properly, is not a nuisance.”  Used properly means at half speed, “which is significantly lower in noise volume, they’re much more efficient,” said Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.  Which makes us wonder why full speed is even an option.

Click the first link to read the entire piece.  It is well worth your time, particularly the bit about local hero Fred Chichester, 79, of Montclair, who, when he hears a leaf blower nearby, “gets into his 1998 Ford Escort wagon, one of his seven cars, and looks for the culprits, suing them in municipal court for violating the ban.” Fred then takes the landscapers to court, “about 20 times over the years.” And he usually wins.

 

Finding it hard to escape noise? This could be why:

In “A Map of Noisy America,” CityLab writes about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS) new National Transportation Noise Map, which shows that “more than 97 percent of the U.S. population has the potential to be exposed to noise from aviation and Interstate highways at levels below 50 decibels or roughly comparable to the noise level of a humming refrigerator.”  The map also reveals that “[l]ess than one-tenth of a percent of the population could potentially experience noise levels of 80 decibels or more.” So that’s not bad, right? Well, yes and no.

CityLab notes that “noise doesn’t have to be particularly penetrating to be a public health menace,” adding that the World Health Organization “set a benchmark of recommended exposure to night sounds for Europeans” at 40 decibels.  Why so low?  Because studies have shown that sleep schedules are interrupted by noise over 42 decibels, “[e]xposure to road noise above 50 decibels (comparable to a quiet office) has been associated with higher risks of heart attack,” and noise has been linked to obesity and other maladies.

So check out the map and see how your community fares, but keep in mind that this map only looks at aviation and highway noise.  Next up?  The BTS states that “future versions of the National Transportation Noise Map are envisioned to include additional transportation noise sources, such as rail and maritime.”  We’ll keep you posted.

Why do whales beach themselves?

A new study suggests that they are trying to escape noise, reports news.com.au. The study “has found that startled beaked whales swimming away from low frequency sonar boost their energy consumption by more than 30 per cent.” Why is this important? Because the “study showed a big difference in the energy cost of whales swimming normally and attempting to escape danger,” and suggested that “In some cases fleeing whales might run out of steam and become washed up on beaches.”

Noise is not just a nuisance.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

Sounding off on noise

Jeanine Barone, writing for Principa-Scientific International, interviews Arline Bronzaft, PhD, asking Dr. Bronzaft about her lifetime of fighting noise. Dr. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, is a professor emerita of psychology at Lehman College, City University of New York, and an expert witness in court cases and government hearings on the impact of noise on mental and physical well-being.  She also is a founding member of The Quiet Coalition.

Barone wonders whether noise has to be loud to affect people, to which Dr. Bronzaft responds that noise doesn’t necessarily have to be loud to affect someone because “[n]oise is any unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable sound.”  Dr. Bronzaft describes the negative effects of noise on health and quality of life, including its impact on children’s learning.

That noise is understood to be detrimental to children’s learning is due in large part to Dr. Bronzaft’s landmark study of an elementary school adjacent to an elevated train track in New York City. On one side of the building “the classrooms were exposed to passing train noise every 4.5 minutes,” while on the other side of the building “the classrooms were not intruded upon by passing train noise.”  Dr. Bronzaft’s study showed that “[b]y the sixth grade, the children exposed to noise were nearly a year behind in reading.”

But Dr. Bronzaft didn’t conclude her study and move on.  Rather, she brought the data to the transit authority and convinced them to employ noise suppression technology on the nearby tracks.  Some years later she did a follow-up study that found that the noise had decreased and “children on both sides of the school were reading at the same level.”

Click the link to learn more about Dr. Bronzaft’s work

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.