Acoustics

Noise in hospitals? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is listening

Photo credit: Sara Star NS licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

For those of us who’ve been working for decades on the tough problem of noise in hospitals—specifically the effects of that noise on patients, physicians, families, and staff—news that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the work of popular podcast 99% Invisible’s inquiry into this problem begets mixed emotions. Finally, major foundations are listening!

Believe me, we welcome their interest! What better place to study the effects of noise on human health than in hospitals? If any professional group is able to carefully examine health effects and tease apart causality, shouldn’t it be medical professionals, both clinicians and researchers?

My colleagues and I have been enthusiastic about working with hospital staffs on noise and health for 18 years now. But frankly, it’s been extremely difficult to find foundations and government agencies willing to fund this kind of trans-disciplinary work. Why? Because it’s expensive and hard to assemble a team of researchers drawn from several different disciplines like medicine and acoustical science–the two groups barely speak the same language. But one of our proudest efforts did just that, the so-called Harvard Sleep Study, and it has become important because of its rarity.

That study, which began in 2006 and was published in 2012, discovered and described something we all know intuitively: that individual sounds, like musical notes, or alarm noises, or mechanical equipment or passing aircraft, are very different from each other and can’t be described with a single metric like the decibel rating. Indeed, the ability of a particular noise to arouse you from sleep depends more on the characteristics of that sound, rather than it’s decibel rating.

The decibel rating scheme records only sound-energy levels—that’s the energy that can physically harm your ears and your auditory system. But the decibel rating scheme does not, and indeed cannot, account for other noise effects such as a stress reaction, which can lead to cardiovascular problems or annoyance.  For example, a neighbor’s barking dog, a passing aircraft, or someone using a leaf blower near your house may be very annoying and may even disrupt your sleep, but is it loud enough to harm your hearing?

So it should come as no surprise that there is an alternative approach to measuring the many effects of noise. This alternative approach, called psychoacoustics, has been around nearly as long as the decibel rating scheme, but while it’s been embraced outside the U.S., it has had virtually no effect in this country. Psychoacoustics, also called supplemental metrics, emerged in the U.S. seven decades ago, but then emigrated to the European Unon. The classic work in this field is called “Psychoacoustics” by Fastl and Zwicker.

In the U.S., work on psychoacoustics had virtually no effect on the field of noise control until last year, when Congress included a requirement in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act that the Department of Transportation and the FAA begin using alternative metrics in their evaluations of the effects of noise on people in neighborhoods under airport flight paths.

If you’ve installed a free sound meter app on your smartphone, all you can measure is decibels (dB). At best you might be able to measure decibels with different weightings, e.g., dBA, dBB and dBC (the A, B and C versions adjust the dB scale to approximate human hearing or other dimensions of sound). But if you own a professional sound level meter, you can probably choose either one of the decibel scales, or an alternative called Sone. Do decibels and Sone measure the same things? in a word, no. Psychoacoustics measurements account for a variety of different aspects of sounds well beyond sound pressure levels.

The difference is as great, for example, as using a thermometer to take your body temperature versus using standard instruments to collect all of your vital signs and take a sample of your blood. That thermometer that takes your body temperature is a single indicator. The rest of your vital signs are something else entirely.

It’s exciting that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a podcast that considers metrics beyond decibels and considers some of the other vital signs that determine how the hospital soundscape affects patients and staff. Curiously, the researchers cited in this podcast don’t appear to be aware that there is already a well-defined, long-established set of metrics for doing so. One hopes they are not wasting time—and a foundation’s money–“reinventing the wheel,” ignoring the methods developed over many decades in the field of psychoacoustics.

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 the sound of buildings affects us

Photo credit: Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels

Lakshmi Sandhana, The BBC, writes about how the acoustic qualities of our homes, offices, and public spaces impacts our comfort level and may even affect our moods.

Sandhana notes that even though we rely on eyes to help us navigate our world, “our ears are constantly picking up information from our surroundings that unconsciously alters how we feel about a space.”

Fortunately, people are starting to understand that buildings and spaces need to be acoustically satisfying and not just visually attractive or useful. Writes Sandhana:

Scientific research suggests they are wise to do so. Noisy work and home settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, issues concentrating in the workplace due to office noise and intermittent noise has been found to significantly reduce human performance.

Not to mention how noise affects our ability to enjoy a meal.

Sandhana reports that the way sound interacts with a building’s physical structure can even affect our emotions, noting, for example, that an open space can make us feel freer.

And there are whole disciplines, now, says Sandhana, that are focusing on materials and technologies that could help abate noise in cities and reduce sound pressures above recommended levels. In fact, Sandhana tells us that virtual reality systems are allowing architects to hear “how the spaces they design might sound like through ‘auralisations’ of structures using acoustic modeling software.”

It’s all very exciting. But perhaps most exciting of all is reading that sound and noise in public and private spaces may finally be getting the attention that it deserves.

 

 

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.

Sound strategy

Photo credit: Robin Hall licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I know a good line when I steal one, but I always give credit. This article in EFA magazine has both a great title and good information about designing spaces in which older people can converse more easily.

The principles of universal design state that all facilities should be designed to be used by everyone–young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny, and completely abled or not–and the design of the space should include its soundscape. So why not apply these principles to all interior spaces–and not just spaces dedicated for older peopleand design spaces that allow everyone to speak and be heard?

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.

What to do if you hear sounds that others do not

Photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

Finally, David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition, addressed a query from a woman who said she heard a sound in her living space that her partner insists wasn’t there:

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

The Quiet Coalition recently received an inquiry from a woman who said she hears “a nearly imperceptible high-pitched sound” in her living space. She states that she can hear the sound, but her partner insists there is no sound. “Could a smartphone-based sound-meter app isolate and identify this sound?” she asked, adding “if so, which one do you recommend?”

First, I must note that the fact that this woman hears noise but her partner does not means nothing at all. Her partner could simply have much less sensitive hearing!

We at The Quiet Coalition agree that the best step is to try to measure the sound. There are free or inexpensive sound meter apps that you can install on your smartphone, so start there. Some are better than others, but thankfully, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested and rated smartphone sound-meter apps, which we reported on last year.

But a smartphone app may not be sensitive enough to pick up the sound. What should you do if this is the case? The only alternative could be to find an acoustics engineer to visit your residence and use professional equipment to identify the noise and then help you identify the source. That person can also suggest some ways to address the problem—which could be a neighbor’s electronics. The National Council of Acoustical Consultants offers advice on how to select a professional, licensed acoustical engineer.

There is, however, another possibility that must be considered: hearing a high-pitched sound that no one else hears COULD mean that you have a hearing disorder called tinnitus or an acute sensitivity to sounds called hyperacusis. Tinnitus can be identified by first finding a truly quiet place, such as a library, or on a weekend retreat in the countryside, to see if you still hear the noise when you are away from the circumstances where you are aware of the sound.

40 million Americans have tinnitus (myself included), so it’s quite common. And many of us spent years assuming that the “background noises” we heard were actually coming from the environment and that everybody heard the same thing!

So we recommend that you pursue both of these steps, because exposure to noise can be stressful, can cause sleep loss, and can have other health effects.
First try to determine where an unseen source of high-pitched sound in your environment is coming from. If the sound cannot be isolated, then consider that the cause of the sound could be tinnitus or another hearing disorder that should be attended to.

Frankly, the best result would be that there really is an unseen source of high-pitched sound in the immediate environment. Why? Because that can be fixed once the source is identified. But tinnitus cannot be cured, though there are techniques for managing it—which include avoiding the kinds of exposures that may have caused it in the first place. And know that the onset of tinnitus can be quite sudden.

To learn more about tinnitus check out the American Tinnitus Association‘s website and the Clinical Practice Guideline for Tinnitus published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

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.

An eco-friendly solution for noisy spaces

Photo credit: BAUX

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

As our editor says, “exciting things are going on in the design world” to address noise problems. Ali Morris, Dezeen, introduces us to a new family of plant-based, biodegradable acoustical panels from BAUX, an architectural products brand, and developed with Swedish industrial design studio Form Us With Love, in collaboration with  the Royal Institute of Technology. The panels are a new chemical-free, paper-like product that is derived from plants, and they quiet all kinds of noisy environments by reducing reverberant sound.

Click the link above and take a look at these attractive panels. Then imagine them calming down cacophonous restaurants, hotel rooms, bedrooms, media rooms, hospital rooms–any public space that could benefit from a little quiet.

This product line is from Sweden, but should turn up on American shores soon. If you have a friend who’s an architect or designer, ask them about whether they can get them for you. Adding decorative panels and surfaces like these to public spaces can make an enormous difference!

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.

Hearing noise? Here’s how to find out where it’s coming from

Photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition recently received an inquiry from a woman who said she hears “a nearly imperceptible high-pitched sound” in her living space. She states that she can hear the sound, but her partner insists there is no sound. “Could a smartphone-based sound-meter app isolate and identify this sound?” she asked, adding “if so, which one do you recommend?”

First, I must note that the fact that this woman hears noise but her partner does not means nothing at all. Her partner could simply have much less sensitive hearing!

We at The Quiet Coalition agree that the best step is to try to measure the sound. There are free or inexpensive sound meter apps that you can install on your smartphone, so start there. Some are better than others, but thankfully, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested and rated smartphone sound-meter apps, which we reported on last year.

But a smartphone app may not be sensitive enough to pick up the sound. What should you do if this is the case? The only alternative could be to find an acoustics engineer to visit your residence and use professional equipment to identify the noise and then help you identify the source. That person can also suggest some ways to address the problem—which could be a neighbor’s electronics. The National Council of Acoustical Consultants offers advice on how to select a professional, licensed acoustical engineer.

There is, however, another possibility that must be considered: hearing a high-pitched sound that no one else hears COULD mean that you have a hearing disorder called tinnitus or an acute sensitivity to sounds called hyperacusis. Tinnitus can be identified by first finding a truly quiet place, such as a library, or on a weekend retreat in the countryside, to see if you still hear the noise when you are away from the circumstances where you are aware of the sound.

40 million Americans have tinnitus (myself included), so it’s quite common. And many of us spent years assuming that the “background noises” we heard were actually coming from the environment and that everybody heard the same thing!

So we recommend that you pursue both of these steps, because exposure to noise can be stressful, can cause sleep loss, and can have other health effects.
First try to determine where an unseen source of high-pitched sound in your environment is coming from. If the sound cannot be isolated, then consider that the cause of the sound could be tinnitus or another hearing disorder that should be attended to.

Frankly, the best result would be that there really is an unseen source of high-pitched sound in the immediate environment. Why? Because that can be fixed once the source is identified. But tinnitus cannot be cured, though there are techniques for managing it—which include avoiding the kinds of exposures that may have caused it in the first place. And know that the onset of tinnitus can be quite sudden.

To learn more about tinnitus check out the American Tinnitus Association‘s website and the Clinical Practice Guideline for Tinnitus published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

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.

Embracing stillness

NBC Left Field interviews Steve Orfield, owner/operator of an anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records once named as “the quietest place on earth.”  Orfield talks about the importance of silence, noting that “the more perceptual stimulus you have, the less you are able to think clearly.” In the end, Orfield observes that we spend most of our energy trying to entertain ourselves until we go to bed, and concludes “if you look at all the things we spend money on and all the things we think we need, what’s the cost of peace?”

It’s a fascinating interview and well worth your time:

How restaurants got so loud

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Kate Wagner, writing for The Atlantic Monthly, discusses the architectural and interior design changes that make restaurants so loud. At the moment, restaurants are full so there is no economic incentive for restaurateurs to make them quieter. Just as there was no economic incentive for restaurateurs to make restaurants smoke-free.

In many restaurants, ambient noise is high enough to cause auditory damage. And in most others, it is high enough to make it impossible for anyone with hearing loss, which includes most Americans over age 65, to participate in conversations.

I used to think that if enough patrons complained about restaurant noise, the restaurateurs would make restaurants quieter. But now I think that, as with getting smoke-free restaurants, legislation is needed.

Think globally, act locally. If anyone has a friend or family member serving on a local city council or town meeting, please ask them to take action to make restaurants quieter.

I can guarantee that people will still patronize restaurants when they are quieter. In fact, I think business will probably increase when people see that they can enjoy their steak frites without a side order of hearing loss.

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 plan offices, what are they good for?

Photo credit: K2 Space licensed under CC BY 2.0

Absolutely nothing. And so the collaboration lie falls, as research by two Harvard student researchers shows that “although companies are increasingly calling for barriers in the workplace to be removed, staff are less likely to speak to fellow employees when they can constantly see them.”