Monthly Archive: August 2017

The unintended consequences of (failed) diplomacy

 

U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (photo: U.S. State Department)

, McClatchy, reports on the mystery surrounding a sonic device used against U.S. and Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba that caused hearing loss. Johnson writes that it is known that the “U.S. military deploys nonlethal noise and radiation weapons to incapacitate aggressors,” like a device that “can hit you with sound that will make you not be able to stand up” or that can “literally heat up water molecules under the skin’s surface.” And, of course, “[r]esearchers have also experimented with ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies above and below the level at which humans can hear,” which, in some cases, “can cause physical discomfort at high intensity.” “They call them brown tones,” said Vahan Simidian, the CEO of HPV Technologies Inc., a firm that makes “long-range speakers that can send sound as far as two miles.” Why do they call them brown tones? Because they “can make you sick to your stomach.” And you can guess what happens next.

But the device used in Cuba was different. How? This device caused hearing loss in those it targeted. So why did Cuba purposefully deafen the diplomats? Vince Houghton, an intelligence historian employed by the International Spy Museum, speculates that it was a run-of-the-mill harassment campaign that got out of hand. Says Houghton:

The most likely scenario to me is this was used to harass, to annoy, to kind of goof off and be, like, ‘Ha ha! Let’s make them sick to their stomach. Let’s make them dizzy.’ And then, ‘Oh crap, it went too far…’

Houghton also believes that someone else was involved in developing this weapon, because the technology would be too “resource intensive” for “cash-strapped Cuba.”

The Cuban government responded by stating that it “has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that “investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.”

The only good news from this twisted tale is that the unknown sonic device was probably intended only to harass, not disable. But when we read this piece our first thought was this: what if the resources marshalled to create this and the other appalling sound-based weapons were spent instead on educating the public on how to protect their hearing or distributing ear protection to vulnerable populations? That is, why do we accept that there is always money for weapons, but so little for public health?

Thanks to Bill Young, PhD, a noise reduction advocate from Stamford, Connecticut, for the link to The Washington Post article.

The deafening killer….finally, an elected official gets it right

This photo has been released into the public domain by its author, Arpingstone.

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Councillor Adam Swersky, from the London Borough of Harrow, wrote this indictment of noise pollution in The New Statesman.

Finally, an elected official seems to understand that noise is a ubiquitous pollutant with adverse health impacts, and with special impacts on the less fortunate in society.

Since he sits on the borough council, he is in a position to do something about it, too.

American politicians, take note.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.

Do not do this

Rosemary Behan, The National, writes about the shockingly common use of smart phones for entertainment, sans earbuds, in public places. Behan starts her piece by recounting a recent encounter with a stranger in which she had to ask him to turn down the volume of his smart phone. Why? Because he had “casually been using his smartphone as a home cinema, without earphones” for five minutes and she decided that she “didn’t want to spend any part of my Friday morning listening to the loud film clips of a random stranger.”  We have all been there.

What follows is Behan’s lament about how often we are subjected to this kind of behavior and her wish that “hotels, restaurants, cafes, or airline managers” would “lay down the rules about this kind of thing” or, perhaps, keep “a supply of disposable headphones on hand, for this purpose.” If only.

The problem, of course, is that the miscreant with the loud phone can completely focus on whatever he or she wishes to without a worry about annoying others (seemingly), while the annoyed others cannot concentrate on their immediate interest or concern because of the miscreant’s use of his or her phone for entertainment. Hence quiet cars on trains, which Amtrak introduced at the urging of regular commuters who “had become fed up with obnoxious cell phone chatter,” and which have since been adopted by other train systems.

Count us among those who are grateful for the quiet car, but isn’t it a concession by the train operators that they are unable or unwilling to police the anti-social behavior of some percentage of their riders? Separation is probably be the best option–it’s relatively free of friction and more certain to reward those seeking some quiet–but why is it even necessary to complain about this frankly selfish behavior? By trying to find ways to accommodate both those who want some control over their soundscape and those who don’t give a damn who they distract and offend, are we not rewarding bad behavior? In the end, do we make the problem worse tomorrow by not discouraging this anti-social behavior today?

 

Au revoir to noisy vacuum cleaners?

Photo credit: Robert Scarth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The answer is yes! Well, at least in the European Union (EU), that is. Some folks like to mock the EU and its many regulations as “the Nanny State,” but we think that regulations protecting the public from harm–be it financial harm, damage to the environment, or harm to their health–are a good thing. So new EU regulations governing vacuum cleaner noise and power consumption are good for those living in Europe and likely will have an impact on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, too.

Noise is a ubiquitous health hazard, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. Research shows that most Americans get too much noise every day and certainly appliance noise contributes to the total daily noise dose. Excessive noise exposure accounts for the recently reported high rate of noise-induced hearing loss in American adults. Quieter vacuum cleaners will help reduce the total daily noise dose.

We know that the Trump administration and Republican politicians believe in the free market, not in regulation. They like to use the pejorative phrase “job-killing regulations.” But it’s clear from past experience that regulations that benefit consumers and the environment will lead to increased sales, and increased jobs, in the United States and worldwide.

American companies ignore international regulations and international standards at their own peril. In the appliance market, this already happened with dishwashers, where over the last several years Bosch and other European manufacturers have a foothold in the American market which they gained by manufacturing and marketing quieter dishwashers. It’s happening with airplanes, where Airbus has stolen market share from once-predominant Boeing by producing quieter and more efficient planes. It happened with air conditioners, where Mitsubishi has taken the technological leadership away from Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning equipment.

We don’t think most people will rush out to buy quieter vacuum cleaners to replace their machine if it is working well, but when it comes time to replace it anyone wanting quiet–and particularly those with pets, autistic children, or elderly people at home–will choose a quieter and more energy-efficient European vacuum cleaner over its American-branded competitors.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.

The Sounds of Protest

Photo credit: John Hilliard licensed under CC BY 2.0

are getting louder. Alastair Boone, City Lab, writes about Stuart Fowkes, the founder of a new project called Protest and Politics, “a sound map that documents the sounds of protest, as they grow louder in cities around the world.” Boone reports that “from Brexit to Trump’s election, the past year has known more protests than many before it,” but he adds that Fowkes’ project includes sound from as early as the Gulf War in 1991.

Protest and Politics is part of a larger program founded by Fowkes, Cities and Memory, which is essentially a world sound map. What makes his new project different is that it is “the first to document the sounds of history.” “What’s great about this project is that it’s little slices of history,” Fowkes explains.

Listening to his recordings of protests in the United States, one can hear the same chants across the country. The “same sort of unity is present abroad,” where “casserole protesting, for example, using pots and pans to make noise in lieu of voice,” which originated in Latin America, is also heard in recordings from Europe and Canada.

Taken together, Fowkes hears “something of a unified voice that’s becoming stronger, becoming louder.” He concludes that “[m]ore and more, people feel like they’re part of something.” And that is what Fowkes hopes people take away from listening to his project. Says Fowkes, “I think there’s a general feeling that we need to rise up and make our voices heard.”

 

Will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise?

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some people put great hope in technology to solve problems of modern living. So it is with those who think that electric vehicles, whether trucks or other vehicles, will do the trick. I’m in favor of electric and hybrid vehicles for their beneficial effects in reducing the use of petroleum products and reducing gaseous and particulate emissions. Anything reducing diesel use will have a dramatic benefit in reducing particulate matter. So news that Ryder, “one of the nation’s largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies, will buy trucks from Chanje [an electric truck manufacturer], then lease and service them through its extensive network,” is welcome. But will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise? I think not.

First, it will take years if not decades for electric vehicles to become more common. Second, and perhaps more importantly, power train noise is a small component of road traffic noise in most situations. I suppose a diesel hybrid vehicle idling on electric will be quieter than the same vehicle powered solely by a diesel engine, but adequate insulation of the engine compartment and an effective muffler system would do the trick just as well.

And of course, electric vehicles won’t do anything about horns, horn-based alerts, or sirens.

The technologies to reduce or control noise have been known for decades. Acoustics pioneer Leo Beranek published his landmark book, “Noise Reduction,” in 1960 and the successor, “Noise and Vibration Control,” in 1971. As noise pioneer Arline Bronzaft, PhD, has written, what is lacking is not the way but the political will.

Road traffic noise is a health and public health hazard, causing non-auditory health impacts like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death. The European literature makes this very clear. There is no reason to think that Americans, largely of European descent and those from elsewhere, have different physiological responses to noise exposure.

If enough people loudly demand that their elected officials pass and enforce laws to make vehicles and streets quieter, our cities and their streets will become quieter. Electric vehicles may or may not play a small role in this, but they are largely irrelevant.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.

Why is Cosmopolitan writing about hearing loss?

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When The Quiet Coalition came together last year, there were few articles in the popular media about noise issues, and those that did appear often contained significant factual errors. But over the last few months, the number of articles has increased and errors within them have decreased. One example is a recent article in Cosmopolitan, an international women’s magazine covering fashion, beauty, and sex, which offers very sound advice about hearing protection, including the admonishment to abandon the use of earbuds.

Health education is one of the cornerstones of public health practice. It is believed that if people know what are healthy practices, they will do it. My observation is that this may be true for those at the higher end of the socioeconomic scale but doesn’t necessarily hold for the majority of people, who are either not interested, lack resources, or are too busy handling everyday life to worry about how what they do today might affect their health tomorrow. I think society has a responsibility to protect the health of all people whatever their socioeconomic status, and I believe that strict regulations are more effective in encouraging healthy behaviors than health education programs. If health education programs worked reliably, nobody would smoke, everyone would exercise, there would be no sexually transmitted diseases, and etc.

As with laws banning indoor smoking (and in some places, outdoor smoking at beaches and parks), comprehensive local, state, and federal indoor and outdoor quiet laws will be more effective than health education programs and articles in the popular media to protect the nation’s auditory health. But health education efforts about the danger of noise are a start, at least for those who read the information.

In the United States, the best example of disparate health habits correlated with educational status may be smoking, where only about 3.7% of adults with graduate degrees (and presumably higher income levels) smoke, compared to 25.6% of those without a high school diploma. This is a striking seven-fold variation. Another example is obesity, which is inversely correlated with educational status and annual income, but the relationship isn’t as strong. Nearly 33% of adults who did not graduate high school are obese, compared with 21.5% of those with a college or technical degree, and more than 33% of adults earning less than $15,000 are obese, compared with 24.6% of those earning at least $50,000 annually.

It’s clear that higher education and income levels are keys to better health. And this now likely applies to hearing health, including Cosmopolitan readers.

And that’s important. I’m an internist who believes in practicing what I preach. I don’t smoke. My body mass index (BMI) is 24.5. I walk an hour or more a day, eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, avoid red meat, eat lots of fish, wear a hat and long sleeves if I’m in the sun, and always use a seat belt. But I had no idea that a one-time exposure to loud noise could give me tinnitus and hyperacusis for the rest of my life. So if just one young woman who reads the Cosmopolitan article protects her hearing–and tells her friends and family to do so too–the staff at Cosmopolitan will have done a great public service.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.

Noisy restaurants redux

Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Both my parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II, met while in the service, and married shortly after the war ended. I was born a few years later. So I am a “baby boomer,” but I’m not a regular reader of BOOMER Magazine. That said, this article in BOOMER Magazine about noisy restaurants clearly defines the issue, even as it fails to deliver the right solutions.

The article talks about the heartbeat of a restaurant, i.e., the unique ambience. Unfortunately, in many restaurants that heartbeat is far too loud. The problem is that many baby boomers have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss, which makes it impossible to understand speech in a noisy environment. And in many cases, noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause further hearing loss, discomfort, and even pain.

Many of us boomers are in our mid to late 60s. We may think of ourselves as “forever young,” but the reality is that (with graying and/or thinning hair, thickening middles, and bifocals) we are not the “demographic” that marketers and retailers want, even if many of us have a lot more money and a lot more time in which to spend it that younger people do. For many baby boomers our mortgages are paid off, the kids are done with college, and we’ve funded our retirements. And members of this demographic are looking for restaurants in which we can enjoy a meal AND a conversation with family and friends. But as long as the restaurants are busy–and they sure were in west Los Angeles last night–the restaurateurs and barkeeps have no reason to make things quieter.

This December I will be speaking on the disability rights aspects of ambient noise at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans. It’s my position that the answer to excessive restaurant noise isn’t eating earlier, or choosing a quieter restaurant (a near impossibility in many cities, including mine), or grinning and bearing it, as BOOMER Magazine suggests, it’s making restaurants quieter. In many cases, this doesn’t cost anything: just turn down–or turn off–the music!

I’m a doctor with tinnitus and hyperacusis, not a lawyer. But it seems to me that those of us with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of having a disability. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” If I’m correct, ADA regulations should require “places of public accommodation”–including restaurants and bars–to be quiet enough to allow those with auditory disorders to converse while enjoying a meal or a drink. That is, people with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or hyperacusis should be protected under the ADA.

For those concerned that indoor quiet laws will hurt business, I turn to the example of no-smoking laws that were imposed on restaurants and bars. Restaurant proprietors and especially bar owners foresaw calamity, but a multitude of studies showed no impact on revenues. My guess is that if some smokers chose not to go to restaurants or bars, they were replaced by those who didn’t want a side order of secondhand smoke with their steak frites. Or the smokers learned to smoke before or after dinner, or to step outside if they wanted to smoke. And that’s what I predict will happen when indoor quiet laws are passed: diners will still go to restaurants, maybe even more of them.

Until reason prevails and restaurants are required to meet reasonable decibel limits, we must ask restaurant owners and managers to turn down the volume.  And if they want our business, they will do it. But what if our requests fall on deaf ears? The next step may be pursuing legal remedies under the ADA to require restaurants to provide a soundscape that protects everyone’s ears.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.

Will electric vehicles contribute significantly to a quieter world?

Photo credit: cytech licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jeanine Botta, of Silence the Horns, expresses some doubts in her post, “Marketing quiet while adding to noise pollution.” Botta writes about a recent post on Huffington Post that discusses the health effects of traffic noise.  She notes that the piece, which “tells us that ‘EVs are bringing the quiet’ and concludes that ‘…you could say we’re about to enter a golden age of silence,'” was promoted by Nissan, with “Brought to you by ELECTRIFY THE WORLD – A NISSAN INTELLIGENT MOBILITY INITIATIVE” appearing next to the Huffington Post banner.  “Welcome to the world of advertorial marketing,” she says. 

What follows is Botta’s thoughtful analysis of why electric cars may not be “bringing the quiet” any time soon.  More importantly, if concern about vehicle noise is more than a marketing ploy, manufacturers should look at Botta’s suggestions on how they can “substantially reduce vehicle noise pollution” right now in both electric vehicles and in internal combustion engine cars by simply phasing out audible alarms and signals.

Click the first link above to read Botta’s entire piece.  It is well worth your time.

Scientists discover that eardrums move in sync with eyes

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Aylin Woodward, New Scientist, reports on new research that shows that our eardrums appear to move to shift our hearing in the same direction that our eyes are looking. Jennifer Groh, the lead researcher, believes “that before actual eye movement occurs, the brain sends a signal to the ear to say ‘I have commanded the eyes to move 12 degrees to the right’.” Why? She opines that “[t]he eardrum movements that follow the change in focus may prepare our ears to hear sounds from a particular direction,” noting that one reason why the eyes and ears move together may be to help “the brain make sense of what we see and hear.”

My guess is that for our primate ancestors, and then for primitive humans, there was a survival advantage to hearing sound from something that had been seen. Friend or foe? Food or predator? It will be interesting to see where this research leads, particularly as Woodward writes that the study might help develop better hearing aids, “which must locate where sounds are coming from to work well.”

Research is always good. That’s how we learn about how the world works. But we don’t need any more research to know that noise is a health and public health hazard, and that we need to press our elected officials to make the world quieter now.

Because no matter how good the technology becomes, preserved normal hearing is far better than any hearing aid. And far cheaper, too.

Dr. Daniel 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 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.