Coronavirus Pandemic

Lockdown quiet offers post-pandemic possibilities

Photo credit: Hans-Peter Bock hpbock@avaapgh.de licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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

As I have written previously, talk among advocates for less noise, like John Stewart of the UK’s Noise Association, has noted that the pandemic may have provided us  the opportunity to reflect on changes we could make that will lead to less noise, air pollution, and climate emissions. The changes focus on reduced dependence on cars, increased space for walking and cycling, and improved public transit.

An article by Bidroha Basu et al., discusses the results of a study that investigated sound levels in Dublin, Ireland before and after lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and provides data supporting the call for more walking and cycling space and improved public transit. The data indicated that sound levels at 12 monitoring stations were reduced after the lockdown. With road traffic noise the dominant noise source for all but two of these sites, the authors believe that it was the road traffic noise reduction during the pandemic that, for the most part, led to lower sound level readings. With one of the sites located near an airport, the authors do comment that air traffic slowdown during the pandemic probably led to the lower sound level at this site.

The article adds that with “noise pollution associated with ill health…city-wide reductions in sound and noise could provide important public health benefits.” The authors also suggest that cities around the world install similar sound monitoring systems to monitor and assess their noise mitigation strategies.

While the horrors brought about by the pandemic have caused much harm to people worldwide, one could take some solace in recognizing that COVID-19 allowed us to rethink our traditional modes of behavior in a way that could lead to behaviors that would enhance everyone’s health and well being.

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.

Restaurant noise in the time of COVID and beyond

Photo credit: AdamChandler86 licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I became a noise activist, trying to make the world a quieter place, because I want to be able to have a nice meal with my wife in a restaurant where I can enjoy both the food and the conversation.

Andy Newman in the Eastern County Gazette writes about restaurant noise and the additional considerations about restaurant noise in COVID-19 times. As he notes, most of us go to a restaurant not for the food but for the company. We want to converse with our dining companions. And we can’t do that easily when the restaurant is too noisy.

In COVID-19 times, it turns out that speaking loudly sheds more virus for greater distances than speaking softly. That’s why “background music” (in quotation marks because it’s often turned up to rock concert sound levels) is now banned in the UK.

When ambient noise is high, people talk more loudly to be able to be heard over the din. That was first described by French medical doctor and researcher Etienne Lombard in the early 1900s and is called, naturally enough, the Lombard Effect. Lombard understood that noise becomes a positive feedback loop, with everyone speaking more loudly as the ambient noise increases, until everyone is shouting at each other but no one can understand a word.

Newman asks that we still keep the noise levels down in restaurants, when things get back to normal and we’re not worried about spreading COVID-19.

I heartily agree.

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.

Noise returns to Europe after Covid quiet interlude

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Politico reports that noise levels in Europe are increasing after several months of quiet during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Most noise in developed countries is transportation noise from road traffic, aircraft, and trains. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to decreases in all sorts of transportation, Europe and the U.S. became quieter.

This is a good thing. As the article notes, noise is toxic to both humans and animals. Urban dwellers heard birdsong, often for the first time, because it wasn’t obscured by the din of traffic.

The dangers of noise are recognized in Europe, where the World Health Organization published Environmental Noise Guidelines in 2018.

In the U.S., the dangers of noise were recognized in the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978, but implementation of these two laws stopped during the Reagan years when the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded.

We hope that under the Biden administration, implementation of laws meant to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans from the dangers of noise will become a reality again.

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.

A COVID silver lining? Mask use in Korea reveals hearing loss

Photo credit: Jens-Olaf Walter licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from The Korea Biomedical Review notes that mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic is making many Koreans recognize that they have hearing loss. We all use facial expressions and gestures to help us understand what others are saying, and many people unconsciously lip read as well. But when we are wearing masks, awareness of facial expression is limited to the eyes and forehead and it’s impossible to lip read, so we are left dependent only on our hearing to understand what others are saying.

South Korea had an effective government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, involving universal mask wearing, social distancing, an early testing program, and effective contact tracing with isolation of infected individuals. Thanks to these efforts, according to WorldOMeter South Korea has had only 667 cases of COVID-19 per million population and only 10 deaths per million population.

In contrast, in the U.S., the lack of an effective national response has led to 41,444 cases per million and 823 deaths per million.

To use absolute numbers, which may be easier for some to understand, the population of South Korea is approximately 51 million and that of the United States 330 million. Using an adjustment factor of 7, which actually overstates the adjustment for the respective population sizes, South Korea has had 34,652 cases of COVID-19 and 526 deaths. If South Korea had as many people as the United States, it would have had 242,564 cases of COVID-19, and 3682 deaths. The U.S. has unfortunately had almost 14 million cases and almost 275,000 deaths. The difference in case and death numbers is due to almost universal mask wearing in South Korea.

But universal mask wearing in South Korea made it hard for those with hearing loss to understand what others were saying, because they were deprived of the visual cues associated with speech.

And according to Prof. Moon Il-jung in the Otorhinolaryngology Department at Samsung Medical Center, more patients are coming to the hospital to receive hearing tests, with hearing aids prescribed for those who have hearing loss.

And that may be a rare silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.

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.

Stressed New Yorkers file record helicopter noise complaints

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

Jose Martinez, The City, reports that helicopter complaints to 311 have soared with several thousand more reported through mid-November than were reported for all of 2019–7,758 complaints up to November 15, 2020, versus 4,400 for 2019. Martinez rightfully notes that the noise emanating from the helicopters make New Yorkers feel even worse, now that so many are cooped up in their homes. Martinez quotes one New York resident as saying the “noise just makes you crazy” and another saying that “I have wanted to run into the street screaming.” I want to stress that research has clearly demonstrated that noise is hazardous to mental and physical health–it is not “just annoying.” Rather, noise is detrimental to our well-being!

Martinez reports that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced a bill in the House to regulate helicopter noise, but we join in her frustration that there is no comparable bill in the Senate and  the Federal Aviation Administration has essentially ignored the problem. Let me add that the FAA has been negligent overall in curbing aviation noise, despite the growing body of evidence on the health hazards of noise.

New York City has regulations covering the city’s helicopter travel and the accompanying noises but neighboring states do not and their helicopters fly over our city. Martinez notes that Borough President Gale Brewer will be convening a task force next month to address tourist flights and has invited officials from New Jersey to join this task force. She will also explore helicopter use by the city’s police department and television stations. New York City had introduced legislation last July to amend the New York City’s administrative code to reduce noise by chartered helicopters, but it was put on hold due to the pandemic. I would hope that members of the City Council will be part of Ms. Brewer’s task force.

Considering the many hardships that New Yorkers are dealing with related to the COVID-19 pandemic, one might question why attention is being paid to the city’s helicopter noise problem. Let me point out again that noise serves to exacerbate the overall stress that we are now feeling. and this is definitely not good for our health.

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.

Irish commuters to be serenaded by birdsong at train stations

Photo credit: William Murphy licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Irish Examiner reports that the Irish train system, Iarnród Éireann, will be playing birdsong at train stations between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. until November 29. The birdsong  recordings were made in Dublin during the lockdown quiet, which allowed people to hear birds instead of vehicle and train noise.

The newspaper reports that “On Chorus is a public art project by sound artist Christopher Steenson which aims to highlight the dramatic reduction in noise pollution in Ireland during the first Covid-19 lockdown.“ Steenson’s art work asks listeners to reflect on the relative quiet during the lockdown, and also is a gesture of appreciation to essential workers, who in Ireland were the only ones permitted to travel during the lockdown.

The birdsongs will be played from 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Irish time here for anyone who wants to listen. Irish Standard Time is Greenwich Mean Time 0. In the United States, Eastern Standard Time is GMT -5, Pacific Standard Time is GMT -8. A series of photographs taken by Steenson will also be available on the site.

What a wonderful idea: making art from the silver lining to the terror and tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Steenson does, reminding us of the beauty of nature amidst man’s horrors.

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.

The pandemic’s changing soundscape

Photo credit: Sanaan Mazhar from Pexels

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

Bridget Read, The Cut, identifies the past eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the dimmed and heightened sounds in her environment. She associates the start of the pandemic with the silencing of many of the customary sounds in the environment, e.g. less horn honking, no din from restaurants, the absence of the voices and shouts of children as they leave school at three p.m. On the other hand, the increase in ambulance sirens reminded her, as it did many of us, of the people who had fallen victim to COVID-19. This thought also brought us greater fear.

April brought on the sounds of clapping in the evenings to say “Thank you” to our hospital workers, postal workers and grocery store employees. In late May, Read writes that there was the explosion of sounds that accompanied the marches and demonstrations after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. July 4th is generally recognized with fireworks, but July 4, 2020, brought about many more localized fireworks that actually started before the 4th and went on for weeks afterwards. But as the summer ended and autumn approached, Read writes that there was a quieter period as if people were holding their breath as they reflected on a potential second wave of the pandemic.

November was ushered in by long lines of people waiting to vote and quietly reflecting on who would be elected the next president. Then, on a warm Saturday in early November, Read was overwhelmed by cheers, clapping, car honking, and loud talking from the streets. Everyone seemed to be making lots of noise. What brought about all these sounds–Donald Trump had lost the election.

More excitement followed for the next few days with people rushing out into the streets to celebrate the election of Joseph Biden. Music seemed to be everywhere as people danced in the streets. These sounds that accompanied joy may have been brief, according to Read, but the joy was real.

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.

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.

The sound of cities before and during the pandemic

Photo credit: Jonathan licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

Stuart Fowkes, a UK based artist, has been mapping out the sounds of cities since 2014. I would guess that he never imagined that a worldwide pandemic would provide him with the opportunity to hear “lost” sounds in a city that had been overtaken by increasing noise pollution. He comments about the return of the sounds of birds, insects, and other sounds of nature. His recordings of sounds during the past six years from cities around the world has resulted in a map featuring a wide variety of sounds. His recording project titled “Future Cities” features the sounds of several years ago but now includes the sounds during the pandemic.

In writing about the sounds of cities, Fowkes recognizes that the increased traffic and noise from construction sites, as well as the activities associated with tall buildings, has resulted in environmental stress which can adversely affect health. Furthermore, according to Fowkes, noise has also drowned out certain sounds that defined specific cities. For example, the sounds of the bells ringing at Westerkerk church in Amsterdam at one time played an important role in helping “people mark out kind of where they need to be at any given time.” He fears that these sounds that characterized specific cities will be lost after the pandemic passes.

Fowkes hopes that his project will bring attention to the important role auditory elements play in defining cities and as a result lead to noise reduction becoming a significant goal in future urban policy decisions. With noise having drowned out sounds that at one time were identified with specific cities, I wonder how many people can remember what these sounds were.

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.