Can Acoustic metamaterials rescue your hearing?

Photo credit: Office of Naval Research licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Boston University’s work on acoustic metamaterials is quite interesting, but it’s a long way from being available in stores if you’re concerned about hearing loss, as you should be.

Acoustic metamaterials are an exciting if little-known area of research and development that hold promise for much better, i.e., lighter, less bulky, ways to stop noise from destroying your hearing or disrupting your sleep or concentration.

The article caught my attention because I used to teach at BU, though I don’t know this research team. And I’ve also done some grant-funded work on other acoustic metamaterials in the research lab I co-founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I am very interested in this subject.

But I mainly want to say this: The most important work on noise control right now is going on at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where leadership recognized two years ago that noise is, indeed, a serious public health hazard. That’s huge—because it brings noise out of the dark shadow it’s been hidden under at Environmental Protection Agency since 1981. The CDC’s recognition is what has triggered interest in research on a variety of solutions., and its interest should trigger funding for:

  1. Widespread work on reducing noise at the source (such as noise from airports, highways, railways, construction and \ maintenance equipment, household appliances, headphones, etc.), and
  2. Reducing noise at the receiver (such as noise-cancellation headphones or more effective, lighter, or less bulky ways to block sound from destroying your hearing).

We’ve already seen two pieces of national bi-partisan legislation pass without a fight: the 2017 bi-partisan Warren-Grassley OTC Hearing Aid Act, and the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act. And at the local level, a number of cities and towns have taken up the battle: Washington DC, New York City, Southampton, New York, S. Pasadena, and others.

In fact, it feels like the tide has turned on this issue after a 38-year hiatus and hearing loss is now beginning to be recognized as a serious public health hazard. But don’t wait for this BU group to commercialize their work on acoustic metamaterials because that could be decades away. Go and buy a good pair of ear plugs or a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones AND a good pair of over-the-ear “ear muffs” (they can be found at hunting or hardware stores). Then train your family members, even the youngest children, that hearing is precious and must be protected.

Sound is like the air you breathe: omnipresent, invisible, necessary, but also potentially hazardous. Nobody will protect you if you don’t protect yourself.

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.

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