Monthly Archive: December 2017

Low Frequency Noise May Account for the Intolerability of Gas Leaf Blowers

Photo credit: Dean Hochman licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Jamie Banks, PhD, and Erica Walker, PhD

Boston, MA —Complaints by many residents over commercial gas leaf blower use may be explained by a strong low frequency component, according to a pilot study conducted by researchers. The study found low frequency noise from commercial gas leaf blowers persisted at high levels for 800 feet from the source. Low frequency sound travels over long distances and penetrates walls and windows. “Our finding helps explain why so many people are complaining about the effects this noise is having on their health and quality of life,” said Jamie Banks of Quiet Communities and co-author of the study. “At these levels, operating even one gas leaf blower can affect an entire neighborhood.”

Loud noise is known to harm hearing and non-hearing health, causing cardiovascular disturbances, psychological distress, and disruptions to learning and concentration. Vulnerable populations include landscape workers, children, senior, and people with hearing and neurological disorders, such as autism. More than 100 million people in the US are estimated to be exposed to harmful levels of environmental noise.

The study appears online Nov 3, 2017 in the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies. It is the first in the U.S. to explore the characteristics of sound from gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.

Sound from leaf blowers and a hose vacuum—equipment commonly used in landscape maintenance—was over 100 dbA at the source and decreased over distance. However, the low frequency component persisted at high levels. “From a community perspective, the sound ratings supplied by manufacturers do not take frequency into consideration,” said co-author Erica Walker, a recent graduate of the doctoral program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Our findings suggest that reporting more information on a sound’s character may be a step in the right direction,” she adds.

A Finnish study presented in 2004 also found strong tonal and low frequency components among various brands of commercial gas leaf blowers. These are the types of sound poorly tolerated by humans and which become amplified in indoor settings.

The dB(A) is the standard used by manufacturers to rate the sound of their equipment and is the metric communities use to set regulatory policy. “We now know that this metric breaks down in instances where there is a significant low frequency noise component,” said Walker. In fact, in the International Institute for Noise Control Engineering and the National Academy of Engineering have both indicated that the dB(A) is not sufficient for describing the impact of sound that contains a strong low frequency component.

Gas leaf blowers are identified as sources of harmful noise by the US Centers for Disease Control, US EPA as well as the national landscape industry association. “People need to recognize that this type of noise is not just an annoyance, it is a public health problem. We need think about prevention,” said Banks.

For more information:

Jamie Banks:

Erica Walker:

Originally posted at Quiet Communities.

Will the nation’s young be obese with hearing loss, too?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I recently read a report via AMA Wire citing a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimates 57% of today’s young people will be obese by age 35. One wonders how many of them, after two or three decades of listening to music from tablets or personal music players using ear buds or headphones, will also suffer hearing loss.

As long as the regulators are asleep at the wheel, and the American Association of Pediatrics fails to adequately educate parents about the dangers of hearing loss from noise exposure, I guess we’ll find out in a few decades as today’s children sign up to be fitted with hearing aids. Despite concerns about earbud and headphone abuse among children, the AAP doesn’t have sufficient information about the dangers of noise exposure for children on its website.

And, meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has declined to take action on the basis of false advertising for headphones marketed as “safe” for hearing of children as young as age three using an 85 decibel volume limit, even though a 85 A-weighted decibels is an occupational noise exposure standard–meant for adult workers–and A-weighting usually reduces measured sound levels by 5-7 decibels. The pediatricians say nothing about these unsafe headphones.

Twenty to thirty years from now, will today’s children wonder why the government and medical professionals sat on their hands and watched as they slowly destroyed their hearing, doing little or nothing to protect those who didn’t know better on their own?

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.

And now for a musical interlude, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin

Because yes, along with being know for being “a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, composer, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat,” Benjamin Franklin also invented the Glass Armonica. It was popular instrument in its day, so why did it fall into disfavor?  Because “there really wasn’t any way to make the armonica louder. Concert reviews from the period bemoan the fact that the armonica sounded wonderful—when it could be heard. So, alas, Franklin’s marvelous invention was ultimately abandoned.”



Are your ears playing tricks on you?

Or is it your brain? Heather Murphy, The New York Times, examines “Why We ‘Hear’ Some Silent GIFs.” Murphy writes:

An animated GIF showing an electrical tower jumping rope over delightfully bendy power lines began to spread. The frenzy started when Lisa Debruine, a researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, posed this question:

When she asked Twitter users in an unscientific survey whether they could hear the image — which actually lacks sound, like most animated GIFs — nearly 70 percent who responded said they could.

Perhaps the headline should read “Why Some Hear Some Silent GIFS,” because we’ll take their word for it, but we don’t hear a sound. Do you? Click the first link to read more.

Too loud: noisy toys can damage a child’s hearing

Photo credit: Terence Ong licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, the Quiet Coalition

This report from a Phoenix, Arizona television station mentions children’s toys that are so loud they can damage hearing. Noise level is an important thing for parents, grandparents, and aunts, uncles, and friends to think about during the holiday season and all year long.

The only thing I disagree with in the report is the statement, “[t]he maximum sound level a child should be exposed to is 85 decibels.” I don’t think there is any scientific basis for this statement. The National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states, “[l]ong or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” But the NIDCD fails to give a time limit.

As I wrote in the January 2017 American Journal of Public Health, 70 decibels time weighted average for 24 hours is the only evidence based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss. My blog post for the American Journal of Public Health further explained why the real safe noise exposure level is likely to be lower.

The 85 decibel standard comes from the occupational noise exposure level, which is 85 A-weighted decibels. It isn’t a safe noise exposure standard without a time limit, and it doesn’t protect all exposed workers from hearing loss.

If you are unsure whether the noise level is safe, either get a sound meter app for your smart phone or follow this simple rule: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud! If you can’t converse easily over a sound, it’s above 75 A-weighted decibels, which is the Auditory Injury Threshold, and hearing damage is occurring.

Children rely on us to protect them from many things, and noise exposure is one them.  So this holiday season, do a little research before you buy to make sure you are getting the children in your life fun and safe toys.

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.

Think before you honk

Photo credit: Erik Drost licensed under CC BY 2.0

Silence the Horns has written a thoughtful piece on horn-honking in New York City. No doubt other cities are similarly plagued by this relentless and pointless noise, but in New York City it is an endless, soul-crushing litany and no one in power is doing anything to stop it. Silence the Horns posits that horn honking is a form of aggression, bullying at its loudest, and we agree.  They write:

It is troubling that in a city like New York, groups of commuters can throw tantrums in their cars, bullying three-year-olds with their horns, and not one legislator steps up and says, “Enough is enough.” It is also troubling that so many are forced to listen to hours of horn honking tantrums outside their homes on residential streets while others in the same city are blessed with relative quiet day and night, often due to chance. Would we accept this tantrum throwing behavior standing in line at the supermarket, or the bank? No way. Why is it acceptable to bully others while sitting in a vehicle?

The answer, of course, is that it isn’t acceptable for a relative handful of bullies to disturb everyone else’s peace and quiet, and the time has long been ripe for a governmental response. But given the level of governmental dysfunction in this era, is it reasonable to expect change?

We believe change is inevitable, as study after study shows that noise exposure adversely affects health and wellbeing. So what can you do? Silence the Horns notes that “[e]veryone is somebody’s constituent,” and suggests you start locally and work your way on up.  If enough of us remain engaged, change will come. 

Click here to read the entire piece.  It’s well worth your time.


Alarming: No end to hospital noise

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Three years ago, the voluntary hospital accreditation body in the U.S. known as The Joint Commission issued a “National Patient Safety Goal” about the problem of “alarm fatigue” in American hospitals.  When the Joint Commission speaks, hospitals usually listen because their ability to participate in the Medicare program depends on the Commission’s approval. So what’s happened?

In a word: nothing. Last week, in a paper presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in New Orleans, the distinguished researcher and former ASA president Eileen Busch-Vishniac spoke about this continuing failure to address patient safety in hospitals.

What’s alarming about this situation is that 11 years ago Dr. Busch-Vishniac, when she was Dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Engineering, published a nationally recognized paper on this very problem, a paper that has become a classic in her own field. Furthermore, in 2011 she was recognized for this work and invited by the Food and Drug Administration, the Joint Commission, and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation to speak to national leaders of the healthcare profession about this problem at the first national meeting convened to focus on the problem of “alarm fatigue.” Thereafter Dr. Busch-Vishniac has continue to write and speak about the subject, for instance in this piece last year.

Noise in hospitals—of which “alarm fatigue” is the most egregious example—is a problem precisely because it endangers the health and even the survival of the thousands of people whose health is already severely compromised (they are hospitalized, after all). It’s critically important.

What this deplorable situation illuminates is the long-standing refusal of federal, state and local agencies in America to recognize that noise is, as one prominent medical authority stated, “much more than a nuisance.” Indeed, it is a serious public health problem. Why can’t the most “at risk” population in America—people hospitalized for their illnesses—have access to the peace and quiet they need to recover? If you are bothered by noise—from aircraft, or from motorcycles, or from leaf blowers or from any other source—keep in mind that you are not alone: even the sickest among us who are being treated in hospitals cannot escape the din.

Nobody is listening—yet—despite the evidence. In the meantime, we congratulate courageous and stubborn researchers like Dr. Busch-Vishniac who continue to push for change.  We need you, Dr. Busch-Vishniac. The money to fund research is hard to come by, but please don’t give up!

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. 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.

Groundbreaking research proves restaurants are too noisy

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

New York based researcher Greg Scott presented a groundbreaking study Tuesday, December 5th, at the 174th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. Scott reported actual decibel measurements, obtained using the free IOS SoundPrint app he developed, on almost 2,000 restaurants and bars in New York City. The average sound level was 78 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in restaurants, and 81 dBA in bars.

Even people with normal hearing can’t understand speech if the ambient noise is above 75 dBA, which is also the auditory injury threshold (the noise level at which hearing damage begins). People with moderate hearing loss–25-40 dB decrement in hearing–need ambient noise lower than 60 dBA to be able to understand speech.

The SoundPrint app is easy to use and can help find quieter restaurants and the rare quiet bar. But it is clear to me–as I stated in my own talk, which preceded Greg’s–that high ambient noise in restaurants and retail stores is a disability rights issue for people with hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees people with disabilities the full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation, which are basically any facility open to the public. If one can’t hear in a noisy place, one’s ADA rights are being violated. It is likely that legal action will be required to make these places quieter.

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 battle between wind power v. wind noise

Vermont is cracking down on noisy wind turbines. But at what cost? writes about how the effort by Vermont utility regulators to settle the “long-standing, contentious issue of how much noise neighbors of industrial wind projects should be subject to ended up upsetting both proponents of wind power and those who say the noise poses a health risk to people who live near turbines.”

We love the idea of fossil fuel-free energy, and on seeing a group of large wind turbines from a distance, we thought they looked majestic. But some industrial wind farms have been built very close to existing communities, and opponents of these farms claim the noise levels are too high and “even at a level that is among the lowest in the country would create an unreasonable burden for people who live near the turbines.”

What is that level? For new projects the daytime limit is 42 decibels “near a home,” and 39 decibels at night.  That may seem really low, but the World Health Organization in its report, “Night Noise Guidelines for Europe,” recommends that 40 decibels “should be the target of the night noise guideline (NNG) to protect the public.”

Proponents of the new limits say Vermont won’t meet its goal of “getting 90 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050” without wind turbines, and adds that “scientific studies have shown no link between wind turbine noise and human health.” But there have been complaints throughout New England, perhaps because the people affected “were accustomed to living in quiet areas.”

In the end, the battle will go on as the need for clean energy runs up against the rights of people living in formerly quiet communities.  Let’s hope a happy compromise can be found.