Monthly Archive: December 2018

Is Your Noise Making Me Fat?

Photo credit: Yukari

By Daniel Fink, M.D.

Is your noise making me fat?  That may seem like a silly question to ask, but there is strong scientific evidence that traffic noise causes obesity.  More specifically, increased traffic noise–whether from highways, airplanes, or trains–is strongly correlated with central obesity.  Central obesity (or “truncal obesity”) is in turn linked with increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease leading to increased mortality.

Why would noise cause obesity?  The auditory system evolved from vibration sensing mechanisms in primitive organisms which were used to sense predators, or by predators to find food.  Noise perception remains a major warning system, even in mammalian species.  Except for fish, most animals above the phylum Insecta close their eyes when they sleep but cannot close their ears, except for some which swim or dig.  Noise at levels not loud enough to cause hearing loss in humans interferes with sleep, causing a rise in stress hormone levels. These in turn alter carbohydrate and fat metabolism, leading to fat deposition. And that can cause diabetes and high blood pressure, which in turn cause heart disease.

A study published in 2015 showed a clear association between noise exposure and central obesity.  Another study published that year showed that noise caused increased heart disease and death.

And 100 million Americans are exposed to noise levels loud enough to cause these problems.

There is probably nothing specific about traffic noise that makes it more likely to cause health problems than any other source of noise, except, perhaps, the factor of unanticipated noise may be important.  It’s just easier to study the effects of traffic noise on humans than asking thousands of people to use personal sound monitors for long periods of time and then collecting and analyzing those data.  Noise is noise.

It’s obviously difficult to measure the non-auditory health impacts of everyday noise exposure–in the streets, in restaurants and stores, at sports events, at concerts–on an individual, but noise has powerful physiologic effects.

So as both noise levels and obesity levels rise in the United States, the answer to the question, “Is YOUR noise making ME fat?” may be “Yes!”

What can we do? For those living near highways, airports, or railroad tracks, double pane windows and wall and attic insulation may provide some protection.  But the best approach to noise is to limit it at its source, which will require political pressure to get laws passed to require quiet, especially nighttime quiet.

After the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded 35 years ago (pdf), noise is largely a local government issue.  So if you want change, you have to speak up for yourself.  One easy step is to look at your local government’s website to see if noise is identified as a constituent issue.  If not, contact your local government representative and ask to speak to him or her about noise problems in your neighborhood or around your workplace.  In addition, an internet search should reveal whether your community has a group that is organized to fight noise in your town (click this link for a map of noise activist and quiet advocacy organizations).  Find out if they are active and go to a meeting to see what they are doing.  If politicians see that an issue is important to constituents, it is in their best interest to address that issue it they want to be re-elected.  If they ignore it, they can be replaced.  An active constituency ensures a responsive politician, at least on the local level.

Noise is omnipresent and insidious.  Because it’s everywhere, people assume that it must be tolerated and cannot be regulated.  But when air pollution became so noticeable and obviously unhealthy that it couldn’t be ignored, government responded with forceful legislation.  As a result, our air is cleaner today than it was in 1970America has gotten noisier and hearing loss in on the increase.  As with air pollution, we need robust government action to regulate noise.  If you care about your health and the health of your family, push back against noise, demand action, and join your neighbors to promote a peaceful, quiet, and healthy environment.

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.

Yes. The answer is yes.

The battleground.

And the question is: Are noise-filled carriages bad for your health? Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, is righteously appalled about a bone-headed idea floated by UK railway company South Western Railways which is considering getting rid of quiet carriages.  For some of us–raises hand as high as one can–quiet cars on Amtrak and state-run transit are the one of the few saving graces of an increasingly overused, underfunded public transit system here in the U.S. So reading that South Western Railways may kill quiet carriages not due to lack of interest but because “[t]he rise of mobile phones, loud music players and a general lack of etiquette mean that quiet zones are now virtually unenforceable,” is an absolute outrage.

Parkinson writes that some people think that quietness is overrated [Ed: monsters!] and says that “[p]sychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry suggests that we are becoming frightened of quietness, possibly as a result of technology.” But Parkinson sides with those of us who just want a moment that isn’t filled with layers of unavoidable sound, even suggesting prison sentences for the sound-loving louts who would rob the rest of us of just a few seconds of peace:

Seven years. That’s the minimum prison sentence that should apply to people on public transport who listen to music through their phone speakers (also known as “sodcasting”) – with two years for banal phone conversations that never end.

We agree, and would suggest similar sentencing guidelines for people wearing headphones who sing along, badly, to whatever they are listening to and those who set their phone volume to 11 and engage the tapping sound on their phone keyboards.

In the end, though, we can’t and shouldn’t avoid all sound, but the artificial sounds imposed on us by marketing miscreants and social louts can be controlled. Instead of getting rid of quiet cars on trains, why not make them all quiet except for one loud car for the uncaring and boorish? Tired of trying to eat a meal in peace only to have some miscreant spend his or her entire meal shouting into their smart phone? Interpose yourself into the conversation by offering unsolicited advice or agreeing with the unseen person on the other end. And refuse to give a dime of encouragement to the amateur “entertainers” who leap onto your subway car just as the doors close, armed with a boom box or bongos–yes, really–with the intent of destroying your sanity for the next three minutes.

People have begun to accept that noise is normal and that wanting quiet is some quirky affectation. But noise isn’t normal and should not be the default. We need to push back against the bad behavior of the noise makers and reclaim our public spaces.  So demand more quiet cars. Ask someone to stop shouting into their phone.  And know you are not alone.

Sure, this will happen

I believe I can fly.   Photo credit: sv1ambo CC by 2.0

In “Uber’s Flying Car Chief On Noise Pollution And The Future Of Sky Taxis.,” Fast Company tells us that Uber has a shiny new thing to distract its billionaire investors from its extraordinary burn rate and man-child CEO.  What is this game changer?  FLYING CARS! No really, they are coming and Uber is on it. Fast Company’s Sean Captain writes that “Uber is taking the technology seriously and this week it takes another step forward with a summit meeting that lays out its vision.”  A vision that surely will make up for all of the bad press Uber has garnered in the last couple of months.

After rolling our eyes at the thought of “an urban flying taxi system” somehow maneuvering through Manhattan without killing anyone, we focused on the claim of Uber’s Flying Car Chief, Mark Moore, that “the slower-spinning electric motors will keep noise to a hum.” “What were (sic) looking at is, in the next several years, being able to bring experimental aircraft into and test them in the relevant environment of the city,” says Moore, who fails to mention that Uber had to stop its self-driving car program in California because they were operating their test vehicles without proper permits.

So back to noise. Captain tells us that “Uber plans to use electric VTOL planes that briefly tilt their wings and propellers up to take off vertically like drones, then tilt them forward to fly forward.” Uber is opting for planes because helicopters are too noisy. Moore assures us that Uber’s planes “will be higher-pitched..blending into the hum of car traffic in cities rather than rumbling on over a longer distance and rattling windows.” Then a discussion follows about the difference between helicopter blades and airplane blades, with Moore asserting that plane propellers are “as much as 32 times quieter.” “That’s where the magic happens,” says Moore.  Hey everyone, Uber’s flying care are going to be quiet because of magic!

Sadly, there are naysayers who counter Moore’s rosy view. Says Brien Seeley, founder of the Sustainable Aviation Foundation, “the sound of a plane or helicopter has to be below 50 decibels, about the volume of a conversation at home, at a distance of 40 meters from its landing area.” Why? Because “[o]therwise either the noise will annoy neighbors or the airport will have to be too big to create a buffer.” Seeley has proposed a competition to develop air taxis “that meet the 50-dB at 40 meters target.”  A competition?  Surely we will have a quiet air taxi in no time! Or maybe not–Seeley describes the development effort as a “Herculean challenge.”

The article then focuses on Uber’s “mini-airports, called vertiports (complete with fast battery charging),” that will be put on top of buildings “to minimize the noise.” And there is a discussion about gridlock. All of this while Uber is effectively out of the self-driving car market because of the California snafu discussed above, and that little matter of Google’s Waymo lawsuit against Uber for allegedly stealing its self-driving technology, which Wired suggests could “kill Uber’s future and send execs to prison.”

We will believe in Uber’s magical noise-free airplane taxis after Uber makes an actual profit.

Update: Noise aside, Popular Mechanics offers “6 Reasons Why Uber’s Flying Taxis Are a Mirage.”

 

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?

Swedish researchers discover 3 types of nerve fibers in the ear

This image from Gray’s Anatomy is in the public domain.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report in Science Alert describes how researchers in Sweden figured out that there are three types of Type I nerve fibers in the ear. They did this using sophisticated DNA analysis techniques.

I often say that all research in a broad range of fields adds to our knowledge about noise and hearing and health, but quickly add that no new research, and no more research, is needed to know that noise causes hearing loss and non-auditory health effects including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and death.

The scientific evidence is strong enough that there can be no rational doubt about this. And anyone who still has doubts about this can join the folks at the Heartland Institute who still don’t think the scientific evidence about cigarette smoking causing lung cancer is strong enough to be conclusive. Or the Flat Earth Society.

For the rest of us, guided by science, let’s aim to protect our ears and preserve our hearing.

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.

Just in time for New Year’s Eve

The Food and Drug Administration approves a drug that calms dogs afraid of fireworks and other loud noises. This is good news for pet owners who have tried–and failed–to deal with anxious pups.

Better news, of course, would be if every local government took the lead of Collecchio, Italy and mandated the use of quiet fireworks, which provide the display people love without the loud noise that torments man’s best friend. Gotta be cheaper than getting on the waiting list for Ford’s (yes the car company) kennel with noise-canceling technology.

Chronic noise exposure linked to heart disease, stroke

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 2017, research done at Massachusetts General Hospital reported that stress caused activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with emotions, and this in turn was correlated with vascular inflammation and increased rates of cardiovascular disease and death. But to my knowledge, no one had yet linked stress caused by transportation noise directly to increased cardiovascular risk.

At the recent American Heart Association meeting, however, researchers also from Massachusetts General Hospital presented information to make this direct connection.

The adverse effects of transportation noise on health have been reviewed before, but the new report shows yet another mechanism for these adverse effects.

As Mathias Basner, MD MSc, president of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise, wrote in 2016, “[t]he overwhelming majority of noise effect researchers today accept that there is a causal relationship between environmental noise exposure and increased cardiovascular risk.”

This new report is another piece of evidence to support Basner’s statement.

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.

Motorcycle noise is not a first amendment right

Photo credit: Pulicciano licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This story by NPR discusses what will be the last Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride in the nation’s capital. The Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride first took place in 1988, an excuse to ride loud motorcycles through Washington, D.C. to honor veterans and troops killed in action, and to put pressure on the government to do more to find those still missing. The organizers of the Rolling Thunder ride will be organizing their last event in Washington D.C. this coming Memorial Day, 2019. After that, they will celebrate local and regional motorcycle rides but won’t have an organized ride in D.C. because “the event had become too costly and that federal agencies were making it overly difficult to organize.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said, “[t]he department supports the peaceful, lawful exercise of American citizens’ First Amendment rights, and remains focused on ensuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the Pentagon Reservation. The department is prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride, as we have for the last 31 years.”

Some might interpret this statement to mean that the Pentagon supports citizens riding noisy motorcycles as an exercise of their free speech. I don’t think this is what those who wrote and passed the First Amendment meant. And I don’t think this is what the Pentagon means, either.

I’m a doctor, not a constitutional lawyer, but I can read the Constitution as well as anyone else. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Honoring veterans and pressuring the government to find those still missing action, and complaining about restrictions on a large, noisy motorcycle event are examples of protected free speech. Motorcycle noise is not.

States clearly have a legal right to regulate motorcycle noise, and according to the American Automobile Association, many do, even if state and local police agencies are reluctant to enforce these laws.

And there’s a federal law as well, namely transportation noise emission regulations. The law is very detailed, with different decibel levels depending on the engine size and purpose of the motorcycle (street use or off-road use) but 80 decibels is a common limit. Many if not most motorcycles exceed this limit.

Motorcycle riders may be a powerful constituency, but they are a minority. Their right to make noise stops at our ears.

If enough citizens exercise our First Amendment rights to complain to elected officials and police authorities, the laws will be enforced and we will have a quieter world.

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.