Monthly Archive: May 2017

The sound of the city

Olga Yurkina, Worldcrunch, writes about how “some local governments [in Switzerland] are turning to sound specialists to make cityscapes easier on the ears.”  Yurkina introduces us to Fabian Neuhaus, an acoustician who runs a firm that specializes in sound architecture. While his company mainly works on upgrading the sound quality of industrial spaces and concert halls, Neuhaus believes that outdoor spaces “need to be properly ‘tuned’ to produce pleasant sounds.” “Unfortunately,” he adds, “it’s rarely a priority in an urban project.”

But not any more. Far-sighted public officials in two Swiss cantons are beginning to seriously consider acoustic features in urban design. To that end, the cantons have engaged Neuhaus’ firm to offer guidelines for “a well-designed soundscape along local roads.” “Instead of fighting against noise pollution afterward, we should include the acoustic dimension in the project from the very beginning,” asserts Neuhaus.

Urban planners are also thinking about the design of outdoor urban spaces and what can be done to make them more interseting and aurally pleasant. For example, Trong Maag, an urban planner in Zürich, notes that large uniform facades of glass and steel are “real torture for our ears,” while a gravel or sand path will offer “a soothing rustle,” trees can act as a sound barrier, and a green wall can absorb high-pitched sounds.  And other designers have come up with interesting options, like anti-noise modular screens “with flexible acoustic correction” or singing fountains. Designer Andres Bosshard hopes that at some future time “acoustics will be an integral part of urban design and we will create something with sound rather than just block noises.” After all, he adds, “[w]e have to keep in mind that in a city, sound is central to our sense of well-being.”

Click the link above to read this fascinating article in its entirety.

Link via Antonella Radicchi.

Experts: Hearing loss is on the rise among young adults

Photo credit: Stefan Schmitz licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

and their personal audio devices may be at least partially to blame. Melanie Campbell, a professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, warns that young adults “may be destined to swap out their headphones for hearing aids.” The problem is that this cohort “particularly loves music, they love it loud and they have very few worries about the future.” Campbell notes that World Health Organization statistics show that “[m]ore than one billion young adults are at risk of hearing loss,” and “[a]mong people aged 12-35 years, almost half are exposed to dangerously high levels of noise from personal audio devices like headphones while four out of 10 are exposed to unsafe levels of sound at concerts and other entertainment venues.”

According to Campbell, the primary cause for this hearing loss these days is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). What makes hearing loss particularly insidious, is that people generally don’t lose their hearing overnight. Instead, says Campbell, “[i]t creeps up and you gradually forget that you’re not hearing the door squeak, or you don’t hear people’s heels on the floor.”

To give young Canadians the information they need to protect their hearing and prevent hearing loss, Campbell has been promoting Sound Sense, a project led by the Hearing Foundation of Canada that spreads awareness about hearing loss in Canadian schools.

Spreading awareness about NIHL and how to prevent it is, of course, the the best option. Every school in the U.S. should regularly test students’ hearing and include information about NIHL in their health education programs. Given that NIHL is 100% preventable, the failure to educate children about how they can avoid NIHL is as insidious as the disorder.

 

Better Hearing Month 2017 and the problem of noise

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Every year since 1927, May has been designated “Better Hearing Month.” What better time to think about what threatens your hearing health? In fact, if you already have some hearing loss you’re one of about 48 million Americans—that’s many more than all of the people with cancer or diabetes combined.

That’s a big number, and yet hearing loss—specifically noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)–has been overlooked and underfunded for three and a half decades.

Noise is such a simple word–why is it so complex and laden with jargon and specialists who don’t talk to one another? One group is solely concerned with how to measure it (physicists). Other groups focus on specific types and sources of noise, such as jet aircraft, or alarmed medical devices, or leaf blowers, or trains, or highway noise (engineers or advocacy groups). Others concentrate on the effects of noise on humans (doctors and public health researchers), while another group ponders how noise affects organisms other than humans, including plants, birds and other animal species, including those that live underwater (biologists). Still other groups think about how to mitigate noise (architects and designers).

The problem is that over the past three and a half decades, the subject of noise and it’s effects have been systematically ignored and underfunded by Congress and the White House. As a result, “noise”–the cause of NIHL–has become a bewilderingly fragmented field in which few people talk to others outside their own specialities. This has resulted in a subject that is hard to understand and laden with technical jargon. What is “noise”? Why does it matter? Who cares? Has the science progressed? If so, how and where?

But recently that has begun to change thanks to advances in research and to changes in federal policies from several federal agencies that have not traditionally been involved in noise and noise control. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the Department of Health and Humans Services, the Department of Interior, the General Services Administration, the Joint Commission, and others.

In each case, a specific federal department has bitten off a chunk of the noise problem and developed guidelines and programs to fit their own needs. But put all of these disparate pieces together and you will find examples of real progress despite the fragmentation.

To help build general understanding, we ar the The Quiet Coalition have assembled some of these fragments into a diagram or a “Road Map” of noise effects (see chart above) organized by the way they are studied within various specialized fields. We hope this Road Map helps others see the big picture.

In addition to the Road Map, we have also assembled the basic facts about noise into a simple one-page “Fact Sheet” that provides detailed references to scientific literature. Both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map are starting points. At The Quiet Coalition, our goal is to synthesize the underlying scientific research on this complex and fragmented subject into a coherent picture so that we can collectively find ways to talk about it. We hope you find both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map useful as you think about hearing, hearing loss, and that elusive problem, noise.

The underlying question for each of us should be: how can we work together?

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The problems with hearing aids

Photo credit: Steve Johnson licensed under CC by 2.0

and the solutions. Manfred starts her piece with a stunning statistic: “A whopping 80 percent of adults between the ages of 55 and 74 who would benefit from a hearing aid do not use them.”  Why? For a variety of reasons: discomfort, disappointment with the sound quality, difficulty in using them, expense, and a fear of “wear[ing] something associated with ‘old.’” But what these people don’t realize, Manfred writes, is “the profound damage that uncorrected hearing loss can do to your physical, emotional and cognitive health.”

Click the link to read about the effect of hearing loss on the brain–it’s profound–and read Manfred’s responses to the various excuses people give for not getting a pair of hearing aids.  As she notes, they aren’t perfect, but it’s better to deal with little imperfection than the consequences of not wearing them.

Reducing noise can improve your mental and physical health

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist and noted noise activist in New York City and beyond, has written an article on the effects of noise on hearing, physical, and mental health.  She notes that, “[o]ne loud blast of sound near the ear may cause permanent damage, but it is the continuous exposure to loud sounds over time that reduces hearing ability,” and laments the increase in hearing loss among young people.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure to noise?  Dr. Bronzaft has the answer:

Diners can ask restaurant personnel to lower loud music, and owners can get information about acoustical treatments that can lessen the decibel levels in their establishments. Residents can let managing agents and landlords know they are entitled to quiet in their apartments under the “warranty of habitability” clause of leases. Local public officials and community board leaders should be enlisted in abating the noises in neighborhoods. Readers can go to www.growNYC.org/noise for more information on the hazards of noise and how to reduce the noise in their lives.

Click the first link to read the entire piece.  It’s worth your time.

 

 

 

Can plants hear?

Yes they can. Marta Zaraska, Scientific American, reports on a new study indicates that “some flora may be capable of sensing sounds, such as the gurgle of water…or the buzzing of insects.” If plants can hear, are they susceptible to noise pollution? Sadly, the answer could be yes.  Zaraska writes that the research “raises questions about whether acoustic pollution affects plants as well as animals.” Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia who worked on the research project said that “[n]oise could block information channels between plants, for example, when they need to warn each other of insects.” So throw out the gas-powered leaf blower and buy yourself a rake. Your flora will thank you.

Is a better sounding subway possible?

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Stephen Nessen, WNYC, writes about the Second Avenue subway in New York City and the efforts that were made to improve the sound in its stations. He introduces us to Joe Solway of the international engineering firm ARUP, which designed the new Second Avenue stations.  Solway spent 15 years working on the subway, “figuring out how to eliminate squealing wheels and loud distorted announcements.” He lists the measures taken to make the experience as good as it could be given that “[t]he new system had to work with the existing system.” Among other things, Solway said that they redesigned the way the rails are fastened to the ground, encasing them in rubber that mitigates vibration, used better booths and cables and high quality speakers, and installed sound absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling.

So, did it work? Commuter Rafael Colon thought so. “It’s very quiet, like unusually quiet, not like when you take the number 6 train,” he said.

Click below to hear Nessen’s interview of Solway: