Acoustics

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.”

A fascinating study about restaurant noise

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Restaurant noise is a problem for patrons trying to converse with their dining companions, and a common complaint in the Zagat survey.

When ambient noise is loud, people raise their voices to increase the speech to noise or signal to noise ratio to help others hear what they are saying. This creates a positive feedback loop, where everyone increases how loud they are speaking, until it’s so loud that no one can understand anything being said. The phenomenon, called the Lombard effect or cocktail party effect, has been known for a long time.

This study in the world’s most prestigious acoustical journal, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, adds to our knowledge of how restaurant noise affects understanding of speech. The researchers studied speech in a sound booth at different ambient noise levels. The sound level of speech increased as ambient noise increased. Subjects reported disturbance of speech beginning at 52.2 A-weighted decibels (dBA), with vocal effort beginning to increase at 57.3 dBA. The researchers noted that as background noise increased, it triggered a decrease in the willingness to spend time and money in a restaurant. The researchers concluded that restaurants should have ambient noise levels of 50-55 dBA. That’s a much lower sound level than that in most restaurants.

The study is quite technical, and I have two quibbles with it.

First, it was done in a sound booth. That is ideal for research, but I would be interested to see the study replicated in a real or simulated restaurant environment.

Second, the average age of the subjects was 21, with a range from 18-28. I would like to see the study repeated, even with the same methods, in a population age 58-68, with an average age of 61, or even 68-78, with an average age of 71.

I suspect the findings would be similar, but the decibel numbers would be significantly lower.

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.

Restaurant noise is still a problem

Photo credit: Navjot Singh licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This recent article in the Chicago Tribune discusses the problem of restaurant noise, and what can be done to solve it.

Controlling restaurant noise can be a challenge. There has to be a balance between a reasonable amount of noise, and the ability of patrons to converse each other, but not so much quiet that everyone can hear what others are saying at the next table.

Some restaurant noise is unavoidable, e.g., the conversation of patrons, noise from the street, and the clatter of dishes at the tables, but kitchen noise can be isolated by an interior window if a visible kitchen is desired, and background music doesn’t have to be turned up to rock concert levels.

There is no “one size fits all” solution to restaurant noise. But acoustic science is up to the challenge and quieter restaurants are entirely feasible.

DISCLOSURE. Dr. Fink serves as Medical Advisor to SoundPrint, which is mentioned in this article.

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.