Monthly Archive: April 2020

Rethinking sirens during the pandemic

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Councilperson Helen Rosenthal and several other members of the New York City Council have introduced legislation to alter the tones of the city’s ambulance and vehicle sirens so that they would be in line with those used in European countries. The European sirens, we have been told, are just as effective but not as shrill as the city sirens that are  offensive and disturbing to New York City residents. In response to residents living near Mount Sinai hospital who have complained about the hospital’s sirens for years, the hospital did play different sirens at a community meeting last year and, indeed, the European ‘high-low’ tone was judged the least offensive.

Yet, the intrusive sirens continue to be used in New York City. This despite the fact, as Julia Vitullo-Martin writes in her article “Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis, ”that these excessively loud sirens are both a health risk to emergency responders themselves as well as nearby residents exposed to these loud sounds.”

The traditional argument for dangerously loud sirens has been the need to move traffic so that emergency vehicles can get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Yet, with the pandemic slowing city traffic considerably, why must New Yorkers be subjected to these? With so many people now confined to their homes, more New Yorkers have become aware of these “much too loud” sirens. In addition to being a health hazard before the pandemic, these frequent sirens have engendered even greater anxiety in New Yorkers who view them as reminders of the illnesses and deaths brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vitullo-Martin uses the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic to question the city’s justification in retaining these offensive blaring sirens. Why with traffic down, are the sirens still sounding like jet takeoffs? With fewer vehicles on the road, do you really need the blaring sirens to tell the cars and trucks to move over? Supposedly, there are protocols to direct drivers when to use full sirens. Vitullo-Martin suggests the pandemic might get city planners to rethink traffic patterns in a way that would make it less difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destinations. And the City Council legislation on the high-low tone sirens may have a better chance of passing.

I know the coronovirus pandemic has been more than a horrific experience for New Yorkers but it is out of such experiences that new ideas to improve the health and well-being of citizens come forth. As Vitullo-Martin suggests, one such idea may lead to fewer health-hazardous emergency vehicle sirens.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

April 29 is International Noise Awareness Day

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Wednesday, April 29, 2020, is the 25th anniversary of International Noise Awareness Day. Twenty-five years isn’t quite as big an anniversary as fifty years, e.g, for Earth Day this year, but it is still an accomplishment. The Center for Hearing and Communication started observing this day to encourage people to do something about bothersome noise.

One of the small silver linings worldwide as a result of lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the marked decrease in traffic as people shelter in place, with corresponding decreases in almost all types of transportation noise. Urban dwellers report they can hear birdsong. Of course, when everyone is home, noise from a neighbor who is also at home can be much more annoying than when it only occurs while one is at work.

In general, a quieter world is a healthier world for all living things.  And I will be observing the day by going for my morning walk and listening for the call of the neighborhood’s Cooper’s hawk.

What will you do to celebrate International Noise Awareness Day?

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.

Will the pandemic teach us to listen once again?

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

For an individual who has focused more on her auditory receptor than her visual receptor for the past forty years, I spent much of my time convincing others to pay as much attention to their sonic environment as they do their visual surroundings. I have urged people to recognize the dangers of loud sounds and noise to their hearing and their overall mental and physical health. Similarly, I write about the pleasures of the good sounds around us. The last page of my children’s book “Listen to the Raindrops” (illustrated by Steven Parton) reads:

Moms, dads, girls and boys join together to stop the noise, So that we can one and all, Forever hear the raindrops fall.

As the years passed, I have had more success with my efforts, but now with the coronavirus pandemic it appears that many people who paid less attention to their aural environment than their visual have now awakened to the stimuli that reach into their ears and then impact on their experiences. In “Hopeful birdsong, foreboding sirens: A pandemic in sound,” Leanne Italie writes:

The coronavirus has drastically transformed the world in sound. The routine cacophony of daily life has calmed, lending more weight to the noises left behind. And in those mundane sounds, now so unexpectedly bared, many have found comfort, hope and dread.

Italie goes on to explain how the sounds she is now tuned in to affect the listeners emotionally. Ambulance sirens break ones heart, but the balcony singing in Europe and the applause and whooping at 7 p.m. in New York, saying thank you to our medical care workers, is viewed as uniting people. The increased silence has made people more aware of the snippets of sound in the street when they venture out, Italie writes. She also writes about the visually impaired who depend on the sounds around them to navigate their streets. The article ends with a call to keep listening.

I strongly agree that we should keep listening as I have said for all these years. Become aware of the too loud health-damaging sounds, e.g. aircraft, rail and road noises and advocate to lessen them so that we can all appreciate the quiet that brings comfort as well as allowing us to forever hear the raindrops fall.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Takeways from a silent pandemic

Photo credit: Hakan Tahmaz from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition co-founder Arline Bronzaft, PhD, was interviewed by Newsday a few days ago. The long-time researcher and noise activist known for her work on noise and its impact on children’s education that began 50 years ago hopes humans around the world will learn a big lesson from this locked-down quiet period.

We all need to listen to nature! The rest of nature—the nonhuman parts—have been trying to tell us something for a long time and we just haven’t been able to hear it: when the noise stops, so does much of the air pollution we accepted as “normal.” The sky is bluer now, the air is breathable and sweeter, and we can hear birds singing—all because the dirty industrial processes that generate most of the noise are at a standstill.

Once this is over, can we hang onto some of those benefits? Is there a way to seize this moment to figure out how to lead quieter, less stressful, less polluting lives?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Animals thrive in the silence of the pandemic

Photo credit: Aleksandr Neplokhov from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

While I hold a Ph.D. in psychology and have taught and done research in the field of psychology, I have to confess that my major in college was zoology. This might explain my interest in species other than humans as well as my concern for their survival on this planet, especially when human beings have treated the earth so shabbily. Thus, while my research and writings focus on how sound and noise impact on people, I am still drawn to studies on the sounds of animals, especially those of Bernie Krause who is well-known for his work in bioacoustics.

Abby Wendle in “Human Life is Literally Quieter Due to Coronavirus Lockdown,” asks how the natural world is reacting “in the absence of all the noise we usually make.” She turns to Bernie Krause, who has recorded sounds in the natural world for the past fifty years, for an answer. He responds by telling her about the time he was recording thousands of frogs gathering in the Spring at a lake in California only to have their gathering interrupted by overhead jets. When the frogs tried to regather, they became vulnerable to owls and a coyote who “came in and picked off a couple of frogs.” Mr. Krause goes on to say how our helicopters, tractors and traffic creating lots of noise harm birds as well as frogs.

Yes, man-made noises endanger the lives of other species in our environment as well as being hazardous to our hearing and overall mental and physical health. So now with greater quiet in our world, due to what I would consider a horrific pandemic, frogs, birds, and numerous other species are being harmed less. Ms. Wendle says that with this newfound stillness “the earth, is, like, literally humming underneath our feet.” She concludes that with humans now interacting with their world differently, e.g. listening to insects buzzing in flowers, it might be possible that when this pandemic “passes,” they will remember the effects of their noises on the well-being of other species. Possibly, we humans will then be more respectful of other animals to which this land also belongs.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Yet another Earth Day has passed, but marked by silence and solitude

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

I have mixed emotions about Earth Day every year, and this year was similar–except it was quieter since each of us marked the 50th Earth Day in pandemic-induced solitude and isolation. But this year is different, too.  We have been been thrust back two centuries to the astonishingly quiet, unpolluted time before the industrial age.

Amidst this pandemically induced silence, I continue to be exasperated that even now, the environmental movement ignores industrial noise pollution. Why is it that environmentalists avoid acknowledging two early successes of the environmental movement: the U.S. Noise Control Act (1972) and the U.S. Quiet Communities Act (1978)? It is exasperating that environmental leaders, year after year after year, avoid the environmental noise pollution issue as if they are somehow embarrassed by it.

Environmentalists simply fail to grasp two obvious facts:

1. Noise is a significant public health problem all by itself as clearly proven by abundant research.

2. Industrial noise—including jet engines, power plants, railway and roadway traffic noise, construction and landscape maintenance noise and even wind turbine noise are all sentinels, like “canaries in coal mines,” warning us all of dangerous industrial pollution in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Why has no one ever been able to successfully make this case to environmentalists?

How can we make it now? Might they listen this time, now that we’ve all had our ears and eyes opened by the silence of COVID-19?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

How classical music got louder

Photo credit: Liam Keane licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This wonderful piece in the New York Times discusses how classical music evolved from quiet to loud. The article discusses both how composers wrote generally quiet music until Beethoven started writing louder music, with those who followed him writing even louder music. Then orchestras started playing more loudly, to the point where audiences put their fingers in their ears during the loudest passages.

My wife and I attend concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When Essa-Pekka Salonen was music director, his specialty was conducting Mahler’s works. The sound levels were tolerable.

I developed tinnitus and hyperacusis at the end of 2007, after a one-time exposure to loud noise at a New Year’s Eve dinner in a restaurant.

The current music director, the wonderful Gustavo Dudamel, replaced Maestro Salonen in 2009. Gustavo–everybody in LA just calls him Gustavo–conducts the orchestra at a greater sound level. Especially for works like Stravinsky’s Firebird, I find the sound painfully loud.

I just insert my earplugs and enjoy the concert comfortably.

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.

The pandemic has quieted the world

Photo credit: Atomicdragon136 licensed under CC BY 4.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

When I accessed the National Geographic article by Maya Wei-Haas, “These charts show how coronavirus has ‘quieted’ the world,” I wondered how much thought seismologists had paid to urban noise before the coronavirus. I knew that geology and related disciplines studied seismic noise and that the study for seismologists focused on the persistent vibrations of the ground and its relationship to earthquakes. However, as Wei-Haas writes, “[a]n added benefit of the reduction in background” is the opportunity to study phenomena not readily permissible in the “daily hubbub of human life.” With scientists tracking the reduction in noise in cities around the world, it turns out that seismologists may now be able to detect distant earthquakes that would have been missed in a noisier time.

Additionally, seismologists using fiber optic networks have able to study the lower traffic sounds in a way that may allow them to “manage movement of people in future crises.” That these scientists were able to apply their skills to analyze seismic data in a new way because of the unusual quiet has been a boost in morale, as they say their analysis “makes us feel busy in a positive and helpful way.”

As an individual long interested in lessening the din in our environment, I wonder if the scientists, who are excited about the opportunity to analyze data in a new way because of this unprecedented global quieting, will consider joining advocates for a less noisy environment. Studying the phenomena that are central to their area of research in a quieter world might lead to technological advancements that could be more protective of the earth and its many species.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

The sound of a COVID-19 cough

Photo credit: GabboT licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Throughout history, physicians have used sounds to diagnose respiratory illness. Sometimes one doesn’t need a stethoscope. The barking cough of croup in a child, the ominous upper airway wheeze of epiglottitis, and the wheezes of someone with an asthma attack, can all be heard when walking into the patient’s room.

The stethoscope helps, though. Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816.

We listen for the wheeze of asthma, the bronchial breath sounds of pneumonia, the rales of congestive heart failure, or the diminished or absent breath sounds of pneumothorax.

I once even diagnosed lung cancer in a smoker when I heard the telltale “wheeze that doesn’t clear with a cough.” I had read about this in medical school, but had never heard it in practice until I did. I ordered a chest x-ray which confirmed the diagnosis and the patient was able to have curative surgery.

COVID-19 patients often have a dry cough. Until the U.S. develops sufficient testing capability to test every person needing a COVID test, perhaps sounds can help.

This NPR report discusses possibly using artificial intelligence to analyze the sounds of COVID coughs to develop a diagnostic test. This would also be useful in resource-poor environments around the world. I hope the efforts described are successful.

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.

Popular Mechanics reviews quiet, electric mowers

Photo credit: MonikaP from Pixabay

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

Heres’ some good news: Popular Mechanics magazine has published a review of quieter, battery-powered electric lawn mowers. The bad news is they didn’t measure their noise levels! How bizarre is that? Consumer Reports also tests lawn maintenance equipment, so you may want to check there too.

In the EU, manufacturers are required to test the noise levels of over 50 classes of products, including household appliances and construction equipment. So if you’re concerned about noise levels, look for European-made equipment because the manufacturers can tell you exactly how loud their products are–they’re required to do this following standardized procedures.

The difference in the american and European approaces are discussed in the 2011 report from the National Academy of Engineering, “Technology for a Quieter America. TLDR: The Europeans have a big head start on us.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.