Author Archive: GMB

Better Hearing Month 2017 and the problem of noise

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Every year since 1927, May has been designated “Better Hearing Month.” What better time to think about what threatens your hearing health? In fact, if you already have some hearing loss you’re one of about 48 million Americans—that’s many more than all of the people with cancer or diabetes combined.

That’s a big number, and yet hearing loss—specifically noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)–has been overlooked and underfunded for three and a half decades.

Noise is such a simple word–why is it so complex and laden with jargon and specialists who don’t talk to one another? One group is solely concerned with how to measure it (physicists). Other groups focus on specific types and sources of noise, such as jet aircraft, or alarmed medical devices, or leaf blowers, or trains, or highway noise (engineers or advocacy groups). Others concentrate on the effects of noise on humans (doctors and public health researchers), while another group ponders how noise affects organisms other than humans, including plants, birds and other animal species, including those that live underwater (biologists). Still other groups think about how to mitigate noise (architects and designers).

The problem is that over the past three and a half decades, the subject of noise and it’s effects have been systematically ignored and underfunded by Congress and the White House. As a result, “noise”–the cause of NIHL–has become a bewilderingly fragmented field in which few people talk to others outside their own specialities. This has resulted in a subject that is hard to understand and laden with technical jargon. What is “noise”? Why does it matter? Who cares? Has the science progressed? If so, how and where?

But recently that has begun to change thanks to advances in research and to changes in federal policies from several federal agencies that have not traditionally been involved in noise and noise control. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the Department of Health and Humans Services, the Department of Interior, the General Services Administration, the Joint Commission, and others.

In each case, a specific federal department has bitten off a chunk of the noise problem and developed guidelines and programs to fit their own needs. But put all of these disparate pieces together and you will find examples of real progress despite the fragmentation.

To help build general understanding, we ar the The Quiet Coalition have assembled some of these fragments into a diagram or a “Road Map” of noise effects (see chart above) organized by the way they are studied within various specialized fields. We hope this Road Map helps others see the big picture.

In addition to the Road Map, we have also assembled the basic facts about noise into a simple one-page “Fact Sheet” that provides detailed references to scientific literature. Both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map are starting points. At The Quiet Coalition, our goal is to synthesize the underlying scientific research on this complex and fragmented subject into a coherent picture so that we can collectively find ways to talk about it. We hope you find both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map useful as you think about hearing, hearing loss, and that elusive problem, noise.

The underlying question for each of us should be: how can we work together?

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). 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.

The problems with hearing aids

Photo credit: Steve Johnson licensed under CC by 2.0

and the solutions. Manfred starts her piece with a stunning statistic: “A whopping 80 percent of adults between the ages of 55 and 74 who would benefit from a hearing aid do not use them.”  Why? For a variety of reasons: discomfort, disappointment with the sound quality, difficulty in using them, expense, and a fear of “wear[ing] something associated with ‘old.’” But what these people don’t realize, Manfred writes, is “the profound damage that uncorrected hearing loss can do to your physical, emotional and cognitive health.”

Click the link to read about the effect of hearing loss on the brain–it’s profound–and read Manfred’s responses to the various excuses people give for not getting a pair of hearing aids.  As she notes, they aren’t perfect, but it’s better to deal with little imperfection than the consequences of not wearing them.

Reducing noise can improve your mental and physical health

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist and noted noise activist in New York City and beyond, has written an article on the effects of noise on hearing, physical, and mental health.  She notes that, “[o]ne loud blast of sound near the ear may cause permanent damage, but it is the continuous exposure to loud sounds over time that reduces hearing ability,” and laments the increase in hearing loss among young people.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure to noise?  Dr. Bronzaft has the answer:

Diners can ask restaurant personnel to lower loud music, and owners can get information about acoustical treatments that can lessen the decibel levels in their establishments. Residents can let managing agents and landlords know they are entitled to quiet in their apartments under the “warranty of habitability” clause of leases. Local public officials and community board leaders should be enlisted in abating the noises in neighborhoods. Readers can go to www.growNYC.org/noise for more information on the hazards of noise and how to reduce the noise in their lives.

Click the first link to read the entire piece.  It’s worth your time.

 

 

 

Can plants hear?

Yes they can. Marta Zaraska, Scientific American, reports on a new study indicates that “some flora may be capable of sensing sounds, such as the gurgle of water…or the buzzing of insects.” If plants can hear, are they susceptible to noise pollution? Sadly, the answer could be yes.  Zaraska writes that the research “raises questions about whether acoustic pollution affects plants as well as animals.” Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia who worked on the research project said that “[n]oise could block information channels between plants, for example, when they need to warn each other of insects.” So throw out the gas-powered leaf blower and buy yourself a rake. Your flora will thank you.

Is a better sounding subway possible?

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Stephen Nessen, WNYC, writes about the Second Avenue subway in New York City and the efforts that were made to improve the sound in its stations. He introduces us to Joe Solway of the international engineering firm ARUP, which designed the new Second Avenue stations.  Solway spent 15 years working on the subway, “figuring out how to eliminate squealing wheels and loud distorted announcements.” He lists the measures taken to make the experience as good as it could be given that “[t]he new system had to work with the existing system.” Among other things, Solway said that they redesigned the way the rails are fastened to the ground, encasing them in rubber that mitigates vibration, used better booths and cables and high quality speakers, and installed sound absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling.

So, did it work? Commuter Rafael Colon thought so. “It’s very quiet, like unusually quiet, not like when you take the number 6 train,” he said.

Click below to hear Nessen’s interview of Solway:

 

Can teens get tinnitus?

The answer, sadly, is yes. Emily Barker, writing for Redbrick, tells us about how she developed tinnitus from a one-time exposure to loud sound at a night club when she was 19-years-old. Barker says that she “never had any trouble with nights out being too loud, never had any pain or discomfort from loud music.” But after spending the evening at the club, and after she and her friends went back to the hostel they were staying at, she noticed that her ears “were ringing like crazy,” and she remembered “laughing about it with my friends because they were having the same issue and we were unintentionally shouting at each other from across the room.”

The laughter stopped the next day when Barker found that her ears were still ringing even as her friends’ ears had recovered. A couple of months later, she got confirmation that her hearing had been permanently damaged and she had tinnitus. She also was diagnosed with hyperacusis, a sensitivity to sound, so that “[a]pplause, doors or cupboards slamming, and things being dropped on hard floors are all sounds that [she] now find[s] extremely painful.”

Barker writes about the frustration of having developed tinnitus while everyone else she knew at the event did not, particularly since there was no family history of tinnitus. All she was told was that “sensitivity to noise is thought to be partly hereditary,” so her doctor theorized that she was “just an ‘at risk’ person.”

Barker concludes her piece with a warning to other teenagers and young adults, by listing myths about tinnitus, including, most importantly, the belief that you can’t get it from one night of clubbing. As she points out:

This is still the hardest thing for me to accept; it’s difficult to understand how just a few hours that caused me no distress or pain at the time can have had such a permanent impact. But the hairs in your inner ear can be destroyed by mere seconds of noise if it’s loud enough, and they cannot regrow: ergo, no cure.

Click the link to read the whole thing, and forward it to a teenager you know.  Hey, they might actually read it.

Yes, please!

Goodbye awkwardness, hello quiet!

Salon offers quiet chair to avoid awkward small talk.  Sonia Haria, The Telegraph, reports that the salon, located in Cardiff, Wales, introduced a ‘quiet chair’ “so clients can get their hair done without feeling the pressure of making small-talk.” The owner of the salon stated that “[s]ome clients worry they aren’t good at chatting, some just don’t want to do it at all and would rather relax with a magazine.”  We understand. This is a brilliant idea. Customers can request the quiet chair when they book their appointment, and if there’s more than one customer who would rather avoid conversation at the same time, “any stylist can be told to keep it quiet.” And then there’s the bit we really like: “Even the music can be turned down at the client’s request.”

It’s a long flight to Cardiff, but a small price to pay for a peaceful haircut.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

Massachusetts Medical Society: No to noisy leaf blowers

Photo credit: Hector Alejandro licensed under CC by 2.0

By Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Program Director, The Quiet Coalition

Are health concerns about gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) gaining momentum? On April 29th, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) became the second in the nation to approve a resolution against GLBs, following the lead of the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY). Other physician groups, such as Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment and Fresno Madera Medical Society, have also issued warnings on the use of GLBs and other fuel-powered lawn and garden equipment. The resolution brought by the society’s Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health and its chair Heather Alker, MD, MPH, recommends that the MMS:

  • Recognize noise pollution as a public health hazard, with respect to hearing loss;
  • Support initiatives to increase awareness of the health risks of loud noise exposure;
  • Urge the maximum feasible reduction of all forms of air pollution, including particulates, gases, toxicants, irritants, smog formers, and other biologically and chemically active pollutants; and
  • Acknowledge the increased risk of adverse health consequences to workers and general public from gas-powered leaf blowers including hearing loss and cardiopulmonary disease.

The growing concern on the part of the medical community over leaf blower noise is welcome news. Commercial GLBs can produce noise of 95 decibels and higher at the ear of the operator. This noise level exceeds safe occupational levels by an order of magnitude. The close proximity use of these powerful engines exposes both workers and others in the area to prolonged periods of excessive noise, not to mention toxic air pollutants. The presence of a low frequency component in the leaf blower’s frequency band distribution (i.e., the device’s sound signature) enables it to travel over long distances and through walls and windows.

The MMS resolution notes the harms to hearing and health from excessive noise produced by GLBs. Loud noise is known to cause hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, as well as other health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, loud noise has negative effects on quality of life, communication and social interaction, work productivity, and psychological well-being.

The burgeoning use of GLBs and other fossil fuel powered equipment around our homes, schools, and other public spaces is a public health hazard, and a growing number of physicians and other health professionals are becoming concerned. The moves made by MMS and MSSNY are to be lauded, and other state societies and medical groups, including the American Lung Association and American Heart Association, need to prioritize this issue.  With the body of scientific evidence on the harms associated with noise and pollution, other state and national medical societies have a critical role to play in educating government officials and the public about the connections between environmental hazards and disease and the actions we can take to reduce risks in our communities.

Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc. and the Program Director of The Quiet Coalition. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices. Dr. Banks has an extensive background in health outcomes and economics, environmental behavior, and policy.

Source: Quiet Communities

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

There’s a booming market for fancy noise-absorbing objects

Photo credit: SparkCBC licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”

But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use.  No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”

No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?