Author Archive: GMB

The Freakonomics podcast hones in on noise

Photo of Stephen Dubner by Audrey S. Bernstein, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coaliton

This new segment of the popular podcast “Freakonomics” hosted by Stephen Dubner was released on November 11. It features The Quiet Coalition’s own Dr. Arline Bronzaft as well as other researchers, including economist Dr. Josh Dean at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, behavioral ecologist Peter Tyack at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, emeritus medical researchers at Emory University, and Dr. Mack Hagood at Miami University in Ohio.

Dubner, co-author of the best-selling book “Freakonomics,” always focuses on fascinating anomalies, i.e., the unexpected impacts of human activities. In this episode he focuses on noise as what economists call an “externality”—a noxious byproduct that pollutes the environment for others but for which no one is held responsible.

Dubner interviews Dr. Bronzaft about her justly-famous work on the effects of train noise on kids’ performance in a New York City school. He interviews Dr. Tyack about his work with whales, whose lives—indeed their very survival—is impacted by the environmental externality of human-produced noise from underwater oil exploration, sonar, and ships’ engines.

Dubner then focuses on Dr. Dean’s work at the University of Chicago on the impacts of noise on human productivity, a little explored subject owing to the lack of official government interest in noise research in the U.S.

Take a listen.  This podcast is a fascinating hour-long program that does a wonderful job of exploring current research on noise!

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.

The importance of quiet in times of stress

Photo credit: Reynaldo #brigworkz Brigantty from Pexels

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

In previous posts, I have cited studies on how human-made sounds and noises in our oceans adversely impacted the health and welfare of whales and other ocean species and how a quieter ocean put less stress on its inhabitants. Sabrina Imbler, writing for the New York Times, describes the natural sounds of the ocean’s inhabitants so that we can have a better “understanding of healthy remote ecosystems.” The instruments now used by acousticians allow them to register the sounds that “lurk thousands of feet below the surface.” The acousticians, as Dr. Tzu-Hao Lin discusses in this article, are not only interested in the sounds of sea creatures but also the “ambient hum of the deep sea.”

The recordings of the soundscapes obtained by the researchers will provide information about smaller “deep sea noisemakers” that up to now we have known little about. Dr. Lin wants to make these recordings available online so that more researchers can involve themselves in the research which has drawn so much of his attention. However, Dr. Lin expresses concern that deep-sea mining interests might disrupt larval settlement of certain sea creatures and disrupt the lives of these creatures for many years to come.

Besides the knowledge provided by Dr. Lin and his associates about the ecosystems of these interesting sea creatures, this research also makes us more aware of the fact that humans share the land and the sea with many other species and that all of the species are entitled to healthy ecosystems.

Like the sea creatures in Dr. Lin’s studies, humans are very much affected by their surroundings as well and this is underscored in a second article in the New York Times by Tara Parker-Pope. The 2020 election, as well as the COVID pandemic, have brought much stress into the lives of millions of Americans and Parker-Pope writes about the advice given by neurologists, psychologists, and mediation experts to lessen our anxiety. It came as no surprise to me that she recommended the importance of quiet in soothing our anxiety and enhancing our mental health.

Parker-Pope suggests walking on “quiet, tree-lined paths” and connecting with nature. Silencity readers know how much attention has been paid to soundwalks and their impact on our well-being. I, a Manhattan resident, am fortunate enough to live near a river and a park and can attest that my morning walks along the river and the green park have most certainly provided the comfort I yearn for during this difficult time. Yet, I still long for a smooth electoral process as we move forward and a successful development of a coronavirus vaccine to lessen my stress.

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.

A new sound control product for offices: Soundsticks

Photo credit: Soundsticks by Offecct

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

Casja Carlson, writing for online architecture and design magazine, Dezeen, tells us about designer Andrea Ruggiero’s noise-reducing Soundsticks, which she says are a “free-standing alternative to acoustic panels, made from leftover materials for Swedish furniture manufacturer Offecct.” Carlson says that this new product has been lab-tested, but I couldn’t find any lab reports to verify the claims about reducing office noise. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see European designers actually tackling the office noise problem—it’s considered an important problem in the EU.

Basically, the most important way to reduce office noise is to add absorptive surface materials, starting with the ceiling. Yes, the ceiling is the most important surface, not the floor. But dividers—including acoustical curtains—can play an important role too.

What most architects and interior designers do not know is that it’s quite easy to calculate how much sound absorptive material to add, and where to add it. But they might need to hire an acoustics engineer to run those calculations for them. It’s definitely not a guessing game—it’s completely predictable. So a designer can actually consider a wide range of solutions that are available now, including Soundsticks, to get to a level of acoustical comfort that is suitable to the kind of work being done in an office space.

My point is this: There’s a growing range of options available to designers to achieve acoustical comfort, so there’s no excuse anymore for continuing to ignore the problem of noise in open offices. It’s not a mystery, it can be fixed. And people are more productive and happier in spaces where acoustical comfort has been consciously designed in.

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.

The effect of noise and comforting sound on humans

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

I am a regular reader of the New York Times Tuesday Science section and was delighted to see two references to sound in the In Brief Section by Nicholas Bakalar on November 3rd (print version). In his brief titled “Noise May Raise Dementia Risk” Bakalar cites a study linking noise to increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. The authors, conducting a study on aging, looked at residents living in communities, both quiet and noisy, and found that community noise level resulted in a higher likelihood of cognitive impairment, as well as a risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The lead author, Jennifer Weuve, could only hypothesize about the connection but she suggested that excessive noise can result in sleep deprivation, hearing loss and changes in blood pressure—“all of which are associated with an increased risk for dementia.”

With so many people living longer lives today, this study suggests further research into the potential impact of long-term noise on one’s mental health. However, as stated numerous times before, there is enough evidence on the hazards of noise to our mental and physical health to warrant lessening noise pollution NOW.

The second brief is titled “Children: Not Picky About Lullabies” and cites a study led by Bainbridge and Bertolo in which the researchers found that lullabies, sung in many different languages and from different cultures, relaxed young infants. That infants can be calmed by songs from different languages, different cultures and different voices may also indicate that humans at the start do not center on differences amongst groups but upon similarities, namely the comforting sounds emanating from their voices.

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.

Dogs’ hearing can be damaged by noise, but what about cats?

Photo credit: Tranmautritam from Pexels

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

I wrote recently about dogs suffering from noise exposure, so somebody asked me: “What about cats?” Good question. Keep in mind that much of the research on hearing and hearing loss is carried out in animals—like lab mice—because their hearing is similar enough to humans to provide useful models for research. Indeed, much of the research on tinnitus is carried out on lab mice.

Long and short, cats suffer from noise exposure too, just as dogs and mice do! Fact is, cats, like dogs, have much more acute hearing sensitivities than humans do. So it’s reasonable to assume that your pet, whether a dog or a cat–or a lab rat–is susceptible to the same loud, disturbing noises as you!

Take your pets’ hearing seriously! There are treatment methods available, both behavioral and pharmaceutical, so talk to your vet!

But it’s far easier–and less expensive–to make your pet’s environment quieter, and that’s better for people in your home, too.

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.

Battery-powered leaf blowers: Has their time finally come?

Photo credit: Coolkasun licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As we have written about many times, gas-powered leaf blowers are the bane of both urban and suburban residents, especially now during the autumn leaf drop season. Previous generations just raked the leaves or let them provide a natural mulch in quiet corners of the yard, but the modern lawn care standard has become “no leaf left behind.”

Rakes are natural, quiet, and provide gentle exercise to the legs, trunk, and upper body. Leaf blowers, even battery-powered ones, aerosolize pet waste, tire waste, spores, and other noxious and toxic substances. And gas-powered leaf blowers are a major source of air pollution.

Despite the hopes of many, though, I don’t think landscape workers and many homeowners will return to using rakes, but three recent observations give me hope that gas-powered leaf blowers will be replaced with battery-powered models.

First, on trips to Home Depot, Lowe’s, and ACE Hardware, there were prominent displays of battery-powered leaf blowers in the desired “end cap” location, along the main aisles of the store.

Second, last Sunday’s Parade magazine had an insert from a well-recognized landscape maintenance tool manufacturer promoting its line of battery-powered equipment, with powerful 40 volt batteries.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve recently seen a number of landscapers and gardeners using battery-powered leaf blowers.

I’ve spoken to a few professional gardeners and they all tell me the battery-powered leaf blowers are more than powerful enough for them to do their job easily, they don’t have to fuss with gasoline or trying to start the two-stroke engine, and they don’t have a headache or ringing in the ears at the end of the day.

The Atlantic covered Washington, D.C.’s gas-powered leaf blower ban. And in testimony before the District Council, Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows discussed the technological advances in lithium batteries that make battery-powered leaf blowers feasible.

Maybe battery-powered leaf blowers’ time has finally come?

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.

Pets suffer from noise exposure, too

Photo credit: Charles from Pexels

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

This piece from the UK is a reminder that pets suffer from noise exposure, too. Susan C. Kahler, writing for the American Veterinary Medical Association, reported that ecent research from Harris Polls showed that a whopping 44% of dog owners they surveyed said their pets suffer from noise exposure.

Kahler interviewed veterinary researcher Sharon L. Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM, who says that “[c]anine noise aversion—also known as noise anxiety or phobia—affects 67% of dogs in the United States.” Dr. Campbell lists triggers like fireworks, thunder, construction, sirens, street noise, sporting events, lawnmowers and landscape maintenance equipment, snowplows and garbage trucks as the most frequent outdoor noises that cause problems for pets. But she also lists the following indoor noises that can also trigger noise anxiety: doorbells, vacuum cleaners, construction, electronics (cell phones, microwaves), sporting events on TV, celebrations (family, friends), and smoke detectors.

What about treatment? Dr Campbell discusses three approaches: environmental management, behavioral modification, and pharmacologic agents—all of which can be very helpful. But the best first step is to get your pet’s anxiety or phobia diagnosed by a caring professional and then consider which treatment option to try. Dr. Campbell doesn’t talk about hearing damage or whether pets can suffer from tinnitus or hyperacusis, but that too is something to consider.

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.

Inventors receive patent for new online hearing test

Photo of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf | Photo credit: DanielPenfield licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Faculty inventors at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, located at the Rochester Institute of Technology, received a patent for a new online hearing test.

One of the difficulties in performing at-home testing of hearing using a home computer is standardization of the equipment. The new online hearing test, using speech comprehension as a measure, may overcome this problem.

We’ll have to wait to see how this works in real life when and if the test is introduced for public use.

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.

Open offices spread noise and COVID-19, too

Photo credit: fauxels from Pexels

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

Open plan offices have been fashionable amongst corporate leaders for decades. Why? Not because people like working there; not because people are more productive in them. The real reason executives love open offices is because they’re cheap and changeable at a moment’s notice.

Seriously. Was anyone really fooled by the fashionable designer chairs and by managers’ enthusiastic talk about “teamwork” and “collaboration”? But now there’s the added problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 among people working closely together in those very spaces.

I did some work, including some research, for the U.S. General Services Administration a few years ago on the long-ignored noise problem in open offices. That helped convince office planners that many people really DO NOT LIKE working in open offices—indeed they’re LESS productive there. But it took the GSA–the nation’s largest provider of office workspaces for civilians–to convince the corporate world that the noise/distraction problem is really serious and happy talk from senior leaders doesn’t make office workers more productive.

Now this year—in just the last couple of months—we’ve all become aware of the long-ignored problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 in offices, classrooms, clubs, restaurants, etc.

So if you see/hear someone talking loudly across the room at your open office, keep in mind that they’re not just annoying you, they’re spreading germs too.

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.

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.