The benefits of quiet during the pandemic

Photo credit: cottonbro from Pexels

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

Hearing that there has been an uptick in COVID-19 cases, I have decided to continue to reflect further on the relationship between sound and this pandemic. With more people being hospitalized with COVID-19, I recalled my papers, written years ago, about the importance of quiet in the hospital setting. I looked at more recent literature and found that studies are still being done in this area. Dr. Julie Darbyshire heads the SILENCE project in the UK which is examining the effect of noise and quiet on hospital patients. They are still warning us of the detrimental effect of slamming doors, hospital alarms and other noises in our hospitals and the importance of quiet when it comes to patient recovery. Dr. Darbyshire has been quoted as stating that massive health gains can come from quiet hospital time. She also notes that noise can be harmful to the staff as well.

Let me point out, as I listen to the frequent ambulance sirens passing my home in Upper Manhattan, that our city’s hospitals should also pay attention to the detrimental impact of these loud ambulance sounds on the city’s residents who are hearing them more frequently lately. I understand that ambulances must get their patients to the hospitals as quickly as possible but I also am familiar with the “less offensive” European emergency sirens being used—so should the hospitals.

With many of us confined to our homes during this pandemic I am assuming that you, like I, may be listening to music for greater comfort. A study found that listening to classical music lowers a raised heart rate and blood pressure, but especially interesting in this study was the finding that a pause in the music of two minutes brought about a period of relaxation and decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently, the silence also was beneficial to one’s heart.

One of the downsides of staying in more is that we are closer to our kitchens for longer periods of time. To those people who are concerned about the effect of extra pounds on their health, I believe you will pay heed to the studies that have shown that quiet leads to less eating. Those who listen to the sounds that accompany their eating rather than loud music on their earphones or a loud television program will eat less food. So while above, I suggested that you will be comforted by your music, do turn it off while eating. Of course, resist going into your kitchen more frequently.

Yes, the pandemic has interestingly brought greater attention to our ears and the sounds around us—both the harmful ones as well as those that bring us comfort and pleasure. Will we continue to reflect on how sounds and noise affect us when this pandemic passes?

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.

Comments (3)

  1. Marc Shivers

    There is a research literature on the effect of sirens on actual patient outcomes. There’s no evidence that using sirens is helpful at all: “The current evidence suggests no significant improvement on patient outcomes and potential worsening to certain aspects of patient care during transport.”

    Siren use should be banned.

    (citation: The Use of Emergency Lights and Sirens by Ambulances and Their Effect on Patient Outcomes and Public Safety: A Comprehensive Review of the Literature)

  2. Elizabeth Mellen

    I recall reading an earlier article (British?) sent by Arline on this topic. It makes complete sense. So far I have not read or seen citation of any article that deals with the health effects of lights and siren use in densely populated urban areas, and not least in areas where high rise buildings are clustered. How to measure the added stress levels in already comnplex urban environments and effects on health.

  3. David Vassar

    Shrieking EMS sirens are sonic assaults and are symptomatic of our City’s extremely unhealthy streetscapes in general. It’s understandable that during daylight hours EMS staffers resort to them to get the attention of the numerous motorists up ahead, each of whom is acoustically protected in a tightly sealed multi-ton 4-wheeler.
    And because sirens are omni-directional, drivers too often can’t immediately determine their source. But the bigger issue here is simply the sheer glut of motor vehicles on our streets, leaving drivers with zero options to make way for an approaching EMS vehicle, whose crew are increasingly anxious to get to their critical destination ASAP.
    This toxic status quo is an outrageous injustice both the for the person critically needing medical care in that moment as well as for all pedestrians, cyclists and others in the vicinity whose vulnerable ears and nerves bear the siren’s full unmitigated blast.
    NYC must more proactively incentivize motorists to carpool, carshare, and when feasible take transit and even bicycle or walk to get where they’re going. And, besides a reduction in their sheer numbers, we need smaller, eco-friendlier vehicles on our roads–as opposed to gas-guzzling, life-menacing, hermetically sealed monsters with names like Escalade, Tahoe and Suburban. How many EMS calls are made in response to an instance of TRAFFIC VIOLENCE somewhere on these human-hostile urban streets?
    EMS for its part should deploy DIRECTIONAL SOUND technology as soon as it hits the market for this highly critical application.


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